Simplicity- It's complicated

Don Norman ‘the guru of workable technology’ recently posted an article questioning the concept of simplicity in design, proposing that it is not the ‘answer’ to usability after all, and it is highly overrated. His theory is controversial- not only does it go against the traditional principles of design; it contradicts things he has written about in his award winning books design of everyday things and emotional design.

Toasters

He presents this controversial case by using the example of toasters sold in a Korean Department store. A simple toaster, perfectly functional, is sold for $20, while a complex German one with loads of baffling controls is sold for $250, and attracts far more customers. You can read the full article Simplicity is highly overrated.

So what’s going on? He has previously stated that simpler = better. Full stop. Simple things are clearer and less baffling to the user, not to mention aesthetically pleasing. However, this is all under the assumption that the user realises a simpler design can still accomplish the same tasks. In reality, people see a simpler design and assume that it can do fewer things. It’s perfectly logical; less buttons and controls must mean less functionality. This deduction has higher importance than considering the product's ease of use, and therefore consumers are less likely to buy it. However, as soon as you can demonstrate equal functionality, I believe that people will love simplicity again.

A complicated toaster

A complicated toaster

It seems like Norman is playing Devil’s advocate to his own theories. While it may be true that from a business point of view ‘complexity sells’ in certain situations, it still presents the same usability problems as soon as the buyer gets home. In terms of usability then, it still stands to reason that simplicity is synonymous with ease of use and that aesthetic and minimalist design is desirable. There may be some cultural shifts or innate differences; certainly in the UK there is a definite preference towards simplicity at the moment; think nouvelle cuisine, minimalism in art and design, homeopathy and iPads. In the toaster example, the shop assistants explained to Norman that complexity is a symbol of high status in Korea, and this attracted many customers to the complex toaster. One commenter suggested that this was the only reason for the difference in popularity and that it is specific to Korea. Norman reposted however that he has travelled to a vast number of countries and has observed the same thing in many different cultures.

These worldly observations however are all at a point of sale or in advertising; the first steps of product purchase and use. It seems like users have double standards; or at least they are confused. They think they want lots of features, but then they want to be able to use it without referring to a manual or a ‘help’ section. After a few attempts at using a complex product, they give up and cry out “Why can’t things be simpler?!”

How many people would have returned home with the amazing complex toaster, only to try and use it, give up, and then either return it, keep it but never use it, spend hours phoning the company enquiring how to use it, or throw it away? Furthermore, how many of these people will think about recommending the brand or staying loyal themselves? In contrast, think of the brand loyalty and affection that comes from simplicity. If the product does more than its looks would suggest, or requires less effort than the functionality would suggest, users will experience positive emotions associated with the product. They are more likely to be loyal to the brand, and will need less persuading next time. The challenge is getting them to use it in the first place; and avoid losing the battle for the attention of consumers to the more exciting looking products.

Since the introduction of the iPhone, most of Apple's advertising has been focussed on demonstrating functionality, as if to reassure the user that it does do more than a standard phone. If they had not demonstrated this, what would the public's perception of the iPhone be? It is a device with essentially invisible controls (touchscreen) and an extremely simple system of 'apps'. A customer with no knowledge of how it works may dismiss it immediately based on its appearance; "simple design = less functionality". Users often don't have the time or the patience to try something out if their initial impression is negative. Therefore there is a lot of value to demonstrating functionality that may otherwise be hidden.

The iPhone; simple in appearance

The iPhone; simple in appearance

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember is that simplicity (and complexity) do not sell themselves. What sells is functionality and convenience- what you can do and how you can do it. How you choose to present these things is up to you, and may be determined by your user characteristics. If you choose simplicity, make sure the key selling points are still recognised by customers. If you choose complexity, expect a lot of calls to customer service!

N.B. Simplicity does not strictly mean minimalism; fewer controls etc. Although it is correlated, there are other factors such as functions per control/button, number of states, number of things needed to be explained or remembered, the logic and consistency of the layout etc.

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