Is Simplicity the Answer? No,…Good Design Is!

December 6th, 2008

As it is to my understanding simplicity is becoming a rescue plan to all design problems. Actually it doesn’t apply just to web design but to everything people can put together (automobiles, cellphones, dashboards etc.), even services are getting simpler. Remember the time when pop-ups were big hits and amazon introduced tabs? After that programmers implemented all sort of apps bundled into one big suite, but not because it was better, they did it (even now they do it) because they could. We became bombarded with numerous options in apps that eventually became too much to handle and now we are in era of simplicity where “one button click and all doors are opened or shut. Simple, elegant!”

Simplicity has been adopted with lightning speed ever since. Everyday people, professionals and freelancers picked the idea like champs without thinking about the impact it has on their design and usability at most. To certain point of degree idea paid off to many designs but if it is so obvious, if the need is so great, why don’t the products match the expectations?

Everyone actually misses the point. Simplicity has never been the goal. Nobody wants to give up the power, elegance and flexibility of our technologies. That simple button that opens and shuts all doors at once may be simple, but it hardly does anything. Lets look at iPhone for instance. If iPhone only had one button that would do almost all operations at once it would certainly be very simple, but… all somebody could do with it would be to turn it on or off and that’s it. Where is the fun in that? Also, why does WordPress implement so many features in their blogging platform?  Surely nobody uses all those shiny buttons. Have to say that simplicity is beginning to miss the point.

Is anybody smelling a conflict here? We all want more and more features, we need everything there is to it. I mean more features the better product becomes. But as the number of features increases, simplicity goes down. To that extend people want devices with extra features and on the other hand cry out for simplicity. Features versus simplicity: are these two really in serious conflict? By standard measures, yes.

Now what have we learned? We want devices that do a lot, but that do not confuse, do not lead to frustration. Ahah! This is not about simplicity: it is about frustration. The entire debate is being framed incorrectly. Features is not the same as capability + Simplicity is not the same as usability = Simplicity is not the answer.

Is Desing the Rescue Plan?

Good design can rescue us from complex features and bundle them into sustainable and usable product. How do we manage complexity? We use a number of simple design rules. Dan Norman has three simple principles up his sleeve that can transform an unruly cluster of confusing features into a structured, understandable experience: modularization, mapping, conceptual models.

  • Modularization

It means taking an activity and dividing it into small, manageable modules. That’s how well-designed multifunction printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines do it: Each function is compartmentalized by grouping and graphics, so each is relatively simple. HP invented a common control mechanism (their “Q” control) so the same principles governed usage of all functions. Learn to do one function, you then know how to do all of them.

  • Mapping

Good mapping is essential to ensure that the relationship between actions and results is apparent.

  • Conceptual models

But most important of all is to provide an understandable, cohesive conceptual model, so the person understands what is to be done, what is happening, and what is to be expected. This requires continual, informative feedback, which can also be done in such a way as to be pleasurable: see any Apple product.

Emotional design is critical to a person’s enjoyment of a product, the most critical variable here being the need to feel in control. This is especially important when things go wrong. The key is to design knowing that things go wrong, thereby ensuring that people will understand what is happening and know what to do about it.

The argument is not between adding features and simplicity, between adding capability and usability. The real issue is about design: designing things that have the power required for the job while maintaining understandability, the feeling of control, and the pleasure of accomplishment.

This post is summarized article from Dan Norman and his look at Simplicity as the answer to future need for usability.

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