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Why Simple Is Complicated

Posted Dec 13, 2006 (updated Jun 14, 2007)

Don Norman kicked off a tempest in the blogosphere’s teapot this week when he suggested that consumers are much less interested in simplicity and thoughtful design than hauling home products packed tight with gizmos, gadgets and gewgaws.

What makes the post particularly interesting is who wrote it. Don Norman is the godfather of simplicity in industrial design. His excellent books The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design champion the intuitive design of products ranging from door knobs and water faucets to the control panels of nuclear power plants. Design excellence, he wrote, is the most important key to winning over consumers.

So it seemed almost like an admission of defeat, or at least of disappointment, when he wrote, “Simplicity is Highly Overrated”:

Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them? Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past [sic], if it ever existed.

Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? …

Marketing experts know that purchase decisions are influenced by feature lists, even if the buyers realize they will probably never use most of the features. Even if the features confuse more than they help.

Yes, we want simplicity, but we don’t want to give up any of those cool features. Simplicity is highly overrated.

I don’t think Norman himself believes that simplicity is overrated as a design principle; he just despairs that it will ever have the same marketing and sales value as a sky-high feature list.

Mark Hurst, another don of simple and humane design, was quick to respond in both his blog and e-mail newsletter:

Don Norman is technically right that simple doesn’t sell, because what people are really buying is a good experience. Sometimes simple is good, and sometimes complex is good, depending on what a good experience is in a given context. … The challenge for designers, and executives, and other practitioners is to consider what’s a good experience in their context. But it’s broadly inaccurate, and more than a little silly, to suggest that “simplicity is highly overrated.”

A problem, of course, is that you don’t necessarily know whether a product will afford a good experience when you’re standing on the showroom floor or browsing a company website. At that moment, you’re in a bang-for-the-buck state of mind. It’s only after hauling your washing machine home or installing your new software that you’ll discover whether the new purchase will afford a good experience. That’s when buyer’s regret kicks in.

That’s why trying something is so powerful, and why word of mouth is so effective. Living with a product, driving the car, or actually using the software is when you discover if your new purchase is a pleasure to use, or little more than a complicated morass of features. This is one advantage to peddling a web app, as Nick Lewis points out, since your customers can actually experience the product with little time or cash expense:

What I’ve found is that less is not more with web applications. Rather, it seems that applications with less to learn (at first), gain more users. Like dating, the critical period that determines your success with a user is likely to be within the first 5 minutes. So, from my standpoint, simplicity is better not because its “simple,” but because a simple application requires little or no thought to make use of.

But is the rule generalizable? Does simple really sell? It turns out that “simple” isn’t exactly a simple concept. A simple, spare design aesthetic is not the same as a simple, easy-to-use interface, which is also not the same as a simple, short feature set.

And that’s pretty much how software god Joel Spolsky took up the argument.

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.” For example, the iPod has the feature of being beautiful, which the Creative Zen Ultra Nomad Jukebox doesn’t have, so I’ll take an iPod, please. In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn’t have to be. The Hummer is aesthetically appealing precisely because it’s ugly and complicated.

I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you’ll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success. With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features. Nothing. The flow to our bottom line from new versions with new features is absolutely undeniable. It’s like gravity. When we tried Google ads, when we implemented various affiliate schemes, or when an article about FogBugz appears in the press, we could barely see the effect on the bottom line. When a new version comes out with new features, we see a sudden, undeniable, substantial, and permanent increase in revenue.

Yep, in terms of software, features sell. But that doesn’t mean that something can’t be full-featured and simple in its aesthetic and process.

Me, I’m a fan of “sophisticated simplicity,” of designs that are easy to use from the get-go, but which afford a depth of featureful experience as you become more confident and knowledgeable about the product. It’s about providing a continuum of complexity, shielding the inexperienced from advanced features until they’re ready to use them.

I’d like to think that Big Medium offers such an experience: dead simple for new users to understand while providing the adventurous plenty of room to explore. As I wrote in the Global Moxie Manifesto:

“Sophisticated” does not mean “complex,” and vice versa

I make powerful, flexible software that shields you from complexity. Everyday tasks should be obvious and intuitive, and more complicated maneuvers should wait in the wings until you’re ready. The software that is simplest to use is often the most difficult to create, but no matter how complex the technology under the hood, the final experience should always be smoothly sophisticated.

The challenge for designers is straightforward, if somewhat easier said than done: Give customers the features they need, presented in a way that makes the easy tasks obvious and the complex tasks simple to discover when you’re ready to handle them.

As Don Norman points out, the cynical will pad the feature list without paying attention to the human factor, but that’s a short-term tactic. It may work well with initial sales but will exact a price in support costs and customer loyalty.The long-term win is to provide depth and comfort.

But that’s not so simple, is it?

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