General, Simplicity

Is simplicity easy?

There has been much talk about simplicity (here, here, here).  Simplicity of design.  Simplicity of use.  Simplicity!  What does it all mean?

Having spent some time thinking about this, I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.  My thoughts are on the general subject of simplicity and I’ll be using the phrasing of “product” and “consumer” to refer to the abstract concept of a product and target audience.  Additionally there are some specific examples for illustrative purposes.

Are simplicity and complexity related?  The real difference between simplicity and complexity is the way in which complexity is presented to consumer.  Products that have been designed with simplicity in mind may still be complex in their functionality or topic, but not so in their usage.  To illustrate these points, I point to The Elements for iPad.  When taking chemistry in high school, students learn about the periodic table of elements, but it’s a pretty dry subject causing them to have to memorize types of elements, number of free electrons, and mnemonics such as BrINClHOF.  However, the iPad app takes the periodic table of elements to the next level, taking a complex topic and making it simple to understand.  It does so by not only presenting the standard information about each element, but showing photos of products made from each element and explaining other usages for them.  Essentially they were able to bring objects from the everyday world we live in and tie it in with the elements that they are comprised of.

But don’t consumers want products with many features and if everything is boiled down won’t they move to other products?  I’d like to present the argument that one of the main reasons we don’t see products embracing simplicity is because it is easier to design a product that is complex, and much harder to design a product that embodies simplicity.  Examples of this can be seen in many places, perhaps the stereotypical example being that of the Apple iPhone. Both the phone and OS embody the essence of simplicity of design.  The phone has one main button on it (other than the power, volume, mute), contrast this to Android phones having 4 or more buttons that encapsulate much of the same functionality of the iPhone’s single button.  Another example of the growing movement towards simplicity is Amazon’s quest to answer the demand from consumers to make packaging on product less frustrating.  Why is it that Amazon had to spearhead this effort in the first place?  Applying my earlier argument here, it’s easier for the manufacturers to make packaging that hard for the consumer to open since it actually takes more effort to create packaging that is easily opened.

The article at PresentationZen really highlights the essence of this argument.  The way they put it there is that:

Simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean removing the complex; it means removing the superfluous.

PresententationZen’s summary plays nicely along with the argument set forth here.  Spend the time to create simple solutions instead of taking the easy route of just putting a product out there.  It’s not easy to spend the time to remove the superfluous to come up with a design that can remain as full functioned as its complicated counterpart, but in a simpler design.