Recent Attacks on Simplicity

January 12, 2007

Norman and Spolsky: Simplicity is Out

Been savin’ this. Awhile back Joel Spolsky and Don Norman came out with two articles against product simplicity. It eventually made its way to slashdot.org where /.’s informed users laughed, ridiculed, and analyzed their peices to utter destruction – rightly so. Norman and Spolsky completely missed the mark on both understanding simplicity and why simplicity is implemented – actually they even misunderstood the thing that they supported instead: complexity. Norman was gracious enough to come out with an addendum to his article in order to respond to some of the /. flak he got but, I think, despite his best efforts, he came up short and made the problem a little worse for his arguments.

First, Norman pops out with this:

“Why can’t products be simpler?” cries the reviewer in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the local newspaper. “We want simplicity” cry the people befuddled by all the features of their latest whatever. Do they really mean it? No.

But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.

No. For those journalists who demanded “critical” features (which essentially means necessary ones) simplicity does not mean “One button to rule all the functions.” It means exactly what they meant: Simplicity means having all the necessary features and no (or the least amount of) unnecessary ones. That’s the core motto of simplicity: necessity. It’s the core of Okham’s Razor – the grand philosophical quote of simplicity. Either quote is applicable be it the technical one: “entities shall not be multiplied beyond necessity” or the colloquial one: “The simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

Granted, this manifestation of simplicity isn’t always “fair” to the engineer who tries to follow the 80-20 rule (as is discussed in Spolsky’s article) but that’s the very paradox engineer’s deal with. The only thing you, as an engineer or as a product designer, need to be concerned about is if you’ve applied the bare essential features to whatever product it is you’re selling.

Norman, when he suggests that simplicity means “one button” he should mean, or rather intends to mean, minimalism. The difference in understanding minimalism in relation to simplicity is best explained via painting – well maybe that’s just me with my art history background. A painting of one color is obviously minimalistic. A portrait painting of one man sitting in a chair in an empty room is simplistic. Minimalism is the view that tries to cut everything down to the core of expression. Conceptually, this means not merely getting rid of the excess – the unnecessary – but cutting down everything to the “singular” the “one” core peice of artistic expression that exists. Simplicity, although conceptually similar, allows for pluralities. It just must be understood that as long as everything included is absolutely necessary.

For some product designers – I’m guessing here – they’ll employ techniques of minimalizing as well as simplifying. Having one button do the work of two (like a pause/play button on an mp3 player) is minimalizing. Removing the calender nobody uses on an mp3 player – simplifying.

And while were discussing the terminology of simplicity it’ll be appropriate to quote the most worthwhile thing in Spolsky’s article:

If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as “Southampton WASP,” fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means “not very many features” or “does one thing and does it well,” then I applaud your integrity but you can’t go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.

The gut reaction here should clearly be that he’s leaving out the definition of simplicity of “that which has all the necessary features.” And, well, while I’m quoting Spolsky I did also have this to say.

Spolsky’s article is much more cogent and agreeable. But here I did a double-take:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”

That last clause of the last sentence through me. To me, the only things that struck me as being non-simplistic factors in 37signals/iPod’s success were “building an audience, evangelism, and direct and instant user-feedback.” Everything else has some direct or indirect relationship to the concept or aesthetic of simplicity. Doesn’t “clean and spare design” literally mean “simple design” and doesn’t “program models which correspond to the user model” refer to a “simple product model”?

Back to Stormin’ Norman.

Norman then comes out with these gems:

Describing toasters, refridgerators, and coffee makers: “all of which had multiple control dials, multiple LCD displays, and a complexity that defied description.”

Describing a Korean car’s dashboard: “A rear view mirror with an on-off switch? The salesperson didn’t know what it did either.”

Great. Now we’ve got products so complex we don’t even know what to call them or what the fuck they even are supposed to do. Supporting product complexity invariablly means that you propose a philosophy where the consumer wants less bang for his buck. Let’s revisit the 80-20 rule. It’s a rule of simplicity – if your demographic is that 80% who use 20% of the features – just implement that 20%. Spolsky’s insight is great when he says that the problem is most of the time it’s a different 20% of the features per consumer.  But if Norman is proposing a complexity situation it ends up meaning that 80% of the demographic will end up using much much less than 20% of the features!

Some are familiar with the recent press releases of Apple’s new iPhone (lawsuit pending). Its main features include mp3 player, camera, video player, web-browser, oh.. and apparently it’s a “cell phone” too. Say I buy that $500 cell phone. Say that most of the time I use it just as a cell phone. Setting aside “real” math, I’m using 1/5th of the phone’s features – ahh – 20%. However, if Don Norman had his say and this iPhone also had features like a scanner, portable video games, PDA, coffee grinder, and an intuitive “widget” engine then I’ll end up using 1/10th of the phone’s features – 10% at twice the price. Granted, I’m probably a stupid consumer for buying a product for one feature I use and 9 I don’t but with Stormin’ Norman on the prowl my money is being wasted twice as fast.

In trying to figure out this rather ridiculous conundrum of why these products were designed in such a way he goes on to say:

“Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features.”

No. Actually, you already had this question of yours answered just a few lines above your own answer:

“Why?” I asked my two guides, both of whom were usability professionals. “Because Koreans like things to look complex,” they responded. It is a symbol: it shows their status.”

It’s a Korean status symbol. It’s got nothing to really do with whether or not complexity and simplicity are universally virtuous aspects to have in a product. It’s just something of cultural significance. As far as I can tell, Americans on the other hand, don’t view complexity as a “status symbol.” Well maybe they do, but it certainly isn’t a favorable one. The past few years of Apple-crazed products and logo-less clothing lines as well as Tivo and RSS feeds and so forth is that simplicity, not complexity, is what is “in” and rightly so. In fact, I will even go so far as to argue that it is environmentally imperative that we focus on cutting down to bare essentials of living – and that means product design first and foremost. RSS feeds are being used to conglomerate numerous infosites into a singular simplistic interface for ease of use. Tivo cuts out the unessential and rather annoying experience of watching commercials for products I don’t want to buy and food I shouldn’t be eating. Life in Korea may favor complexity but life in America favors simplicity.

His addendum tends to encourage the rather fallacious way humans currently go about buying products based on design. It’s horrific to see someone come out and say this:

“We have to take human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.”

…and mean it. It’s a very pessimistic quote is it not? Human behavior, Norman agrees, is fundamentally flawed. But because it is flawed is the reason why “We” (whoever “we” may be) should at least try to improve ourselves from our own flawed nature.

“Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person.”

Consumers should be shamed. Perferring the one that did more when it does more than you need it to do is not “behaving like a normal person” it’s behaving like a glutton – it’s consumer greed and it is the great economical sin of the century.

Norman also talks about the consumer predisposition to conflate complexity with power. This, again, isn’t a virtue. It’s a fallacy which Norman encourages:

Sorry: it is the apparent complexity that drives the sale. And yes, it is the same complexity that frustrates those same people later on. But by then, it is too late: they have already purchased the product.

Is there some sort of Designer’s Ethics Committee that can censure this guy? This is the designer’s equivalent of a hooker saying “Hey, want a good time?” You: “Hell yeah!” You spend 200 bucks on a experience where half the time you’re thinking to yourself “I could’ve just gone home and beat my meat for free.” Then, once this horrible ordeal is over you have to check yourself for spots for the next 6 weeks.  You’re lured in and fucked.

Designers shouldn’t be conmen.

Complex things do not mean more power – if anything they mean less power in the realm of electronics. An mp3 player will tend to have a longer battery life if all it does is play mp3s. The new Apple iPhone is a video ipod, camera, phone, PDA, and web browser all-in-one. That is quite powerful. I don’t know if I’ll ever spend the $500 dollars on a phone (hah, and people were complaining about the price of the PS3! It’s a fucking super-computer media hub for crissakes) but if I do, I’ll get the one with the simplistic interface. But this Apple iPhone is not all that powerful after its 5 hour battery life. However, I had never thought of simplicity and complexity in their relation to power before – an interesting relation to consider too.

Norman also wrote the article: The Truth about Google’s so-called “simplicity”:
He comes out with these gems:

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use.

A) No they aren’t. B) “complex” and “easy” are antonyms!

True [Google’s interface is simple], but that’s because you can only do one thing from their home page: search.

What do you mean “but”? Isn’t the point of a search engine to search? He follows up this quote with:

Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.

True, anybody can. Very few actually do.

If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Did it ever occur to you that you could just search for something on Google? Fucking Christ Norman. Saying something along the lines of “How do you find something on Google” is about as stupid as looking up the word “dictionary” in the dictionary.

It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages. Why aren’t many of these just linked together? Why isn’t Google a unified application?

Because Google isn’t an operating system with a desktop. It’s a search engine with peripheral applications its linked to based on its success of buying out innovative companies. You aren’t looking for a search engine – you’re looking for GoogleOS or some massive website that is an amalgamation of all those products you want in one tight website riddled with links to applications you intermittently use. People use Google (lemme pull a statistic out of my ass) 90% of the time to search for fuck-all. Sometimes they need a map, sometimes they need the news and sometimes they want to check mail or their calender. All of this is a click away. When I use Google to search for something, I don’t need the latest information in my calender or mailbox and I sure as hell don’t need to see a map of the US. I need a text box and button titled “I’m feelin’ lucky.” Thats. It. And that’s the point.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: