The way I see it - Simplicity is not the answer

Abstract

Everyone wants simplicity. The same desires are there, whether the device is a new cell phone or a shop tool, the dashboard of an automobile or the choices offered while shopping in a store. “Why can’t my technology be as easy to use as my garage-door opener?” asks one paper on the topic. “One button and it opens or shuts the door. Simple, elegant.” The cry has been picked up by everyday people, newspaper reviewers, and professionals alike. But if it is so obvious, if the need is so great, why don’t the products rise to the occasion? Everyone misses the point. Simplicity is not the goal. We do not wish to give up the power and flexibility of our technologies. The garage-door opener may be simple, but it hardly does anything. If my cell phone had only one button, it certainly would be simple, but, umm, all I could do would be to turn it on or off—I wouldn’t be able to make a phone call. Is the piano too complex because it has 88 keys and three pedals? Should we simplify it? Surely no piece of music uses all of those keys. The cry for simplicity misses the point. Just look at what people actually buy in the stores, says the marketing expert: People really want features. And yes, that is very true. I made this point in my earlier article on the subject (“Simplicity Is Highly Overrated,” interactions March+April 2007). There is indeed an apparent conflict here. As the number of features increases, so too does the desirability of the device. But as the number of features increases, simplicity goes down. Subsequently, even as people buy the devices with extra features, they cry out for simplicity. Features versus simplicity: Is there really a conflict? By standard measures, yes. We want devices that do a lot, but that do not confuse, do not lead to frustration. Aha! This is not about simplicity—it’s about frustration. The entire debate is being framed incorrectly. Features do not equal capability. Simplicity is not the same as usability. Simplicity is not the answer. There is an implicit assumption: Features Capability Simplicity Ease of use These two statements translate into simple logic: Everyone wants more capability, so therefore they want more features. Everyone wants ease of use, so therefore they want simplicity. Alas, this simple logic is false logic, false because it follows the implications backward. Suppose I said: A sunny day it won’t rain. Does this mean that if it doesn’t rain, the day is sunny? Of course not. The arrow goes left to right: This says nothing about the right-to-left direction. So extra capability does not require more features. Similarly, ease of use does not require simplicity. I conclude that the entire argument between features and simplicity is misguided. People might very well desire more capability and ease of use without equating these things with more features or simplicity. What people want is usable devices, which translates into understandable ones. The world is complex, and so too must be the activities that we perform. But that doesn’t mean that we must live in continual frustration. No. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity, to turn what would appear to be a complicated tool into one that fits the task—a tool that is understandable, usable, enjoyable.

DOI: 10.1145/1390085.1390094

Cite this paper

@article{Norman2008TheWI, title={The way I see it - Simplicity is not the answer}, author={Donald A. Norman}, journal={Interactions}, year={2008}, volume={15}, pages={45-46} }