Demand for simplicity?

From Donald Norman’s latest book Living with Complexity:

… the so-called demand for simplicity is a myth whose time has passed, 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 features mean more complexity. You do too, I’ll bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, feature by feature, and preferred the one that did more? …

Would you pay more money for a washing machine with fewer controls? In the abstract, maybe. At the store, probably not.

Donald Norman’s assessment sounds wrong at first. Don’t we all like things to be simple? Not if by “simple” we mean “fewer features.”

A general theme in Living with Complexity is that complexity is inevitable and often desirable, but it can be managed. We say we want things that are simple, but we really want things that are easy to use. The book gives several examples to illustrate how different those two ideas are.

If something is complex but familiar and well designed, it’s easy to use. If something is simple but unfamiliar or poorly designed, it’s hard to use.

Simplicity posts

9 thoughts on “Demand for simplicity?

  1. I think the picture is more complicated than this; it’s not just that “features win”, or a matter of ease of use. I’ve definitely purchased products with fewer features out of a preference for their simplicity. I bought a Saturn with no automatic controls and no extra features because I preferred its simplicity. I sought out a printer that does nothing but print, and does it in black and white only, because I wanted a device that does one thing well; same with my “dumb” phone, whose battery lasts a week and whose microphone is sensibly placed. And I bought a simple stove-top panini maker with a solid metal weight on top, because it will last practically forever and it works better than the fancy self-heating presses that have different settings for everything.

    On the other hand, I want my sewing machine to have a buttonholer and the ability to do several stitches, I want my piano to have a complicated escapement action instead of a simple electrical switch, and I want my computer to have specialized programs for a multitude of tasks, not just a web browser. I think that’s because the complexity serves a useful purpose in these cases; in the former ones, the extra features either have a significant downside or offer no additional ability, but in the latter ones, they allow you to do more once you’ve acquired the requisite knowledge and skills. It’s a matter of knowing where simplicity pays.

  2. Airline luggage is one place where complexity becomes a weakness. I’ve gone through 3 bags with a dizzying array of straps and zippered pouches, all of which get snagged, tangled, and mangled in transit. My latest bag is smooth and sleek, with nothing to protrude or catch, and it makes the trip unscathed.

  3. I have a half-formed idea that some kinds of simplicity are impossible: If you remove complexity from there you invariably add it to here. The trick, then, is to shove that complexity where it’s least annoying; an example of this is garbage collection, which is almost always best to shove into the core of the implementation as opposed to either attempting to do it by hand, or in a library. Natural languages also work like this: If you remove a complex case system, you add complexity in how your words have to be ordered in a sentence.

    A way to remove that complexity is to do something else, instead. I find this perhaps a bit dishonest, but that’s probably just an artifact of the fact it’s almost sold as a language paradigm in itself: I remember reading a discussion on comp.lang.forth, I think, where they were discussing how to implement Paul Graham’s accumulator generator in Forth. Their ‘solution’ only worked for integers, ignoring an explicit part of the specification. If you accept that as valid, then, yes, it seems like the Forth version has made complexity magically disappear; I also would not want you evaluating software for a life-support system.

  4. This quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein seems appropriate:

    “Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

  5. ddebug: I would argue that Apple products are not as simple as people say. Apple products are well designed. And once you’re an experienced Apple customer, the products are familiar. But an iPhone, for example, is not a simple device.

  6. I see the truth in these statements, but I wouldn’t say it’s an ‘always true’ or ‘always false’ kind of deal. When I’m searching for a product that does x, and I see a, b … f extra features added onto the product description, my first thought is, what is the cost of these extra features, and how are they paid for?
    For the sake of argument, sometimes I find extra features an annoyance at times, i.e. those keyboards with extra (unnecessary) “shortcut” buttons placed adorning them; as if finding the default e-mail program or web browser is really difficult on Windows/Mac.

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