UIEtips Article: Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication

Jared Spool

April 9th, 2007

UIEtips 4/9/07: Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication

Here’s a simple computer game: It asks you to enter your name, tells you, “You’re Right!” and declares you the winner. Simple? Yes. Fun? Probably not.

To be fun, games need a fair amount of complexity to them. That’s what makes them challenging. Yet, it has to be the right kind of complexity. Make it too difficult, or make the mechanics of game play too awkward, and the game loses its appeal to even the most hardcore player.

Balancing simplicity with making something useful is one of the biggest challenges designers face. For years, the K.I.S.S. mantra has been the cry of the community, yet we keep building things with more and more features.

Finally, heavy-weights, such as Don Norman and Joel Spolsky feel compelled to add their inputs: Maybe simplicity isn’t all that it cracks up to be? Maybe we need some level of complexity to make the users happy?

When we think about experience design, we need to think about the entire experience of our customers and users, not just the isolated instance of a single task. In a recent Harvard Business Review, the article, Feature Bloat: The Product Manager’s Dilemma, suggested consumers will likely choose a more feature-rich product over one that appears simpler, but they’ll be less likely to make future purchases from the same vendor if it’s not usable.

In this week’s UIEtips, Joshua Porter talks about the debate around simplicity and how this will affect each of us as we balance new functionality requests.

Have you found yourself facing the trade-off of simplicity over new features? What have you done to make your users happy? We’d love to
hear your thoughts. Add to the conversation in the comments below.

Josh and I will be speaking at the User Interface 12 Conference, November 5-8, in Cambridge, MA. We’ve just announced the program and it’s very exciting. A ton of folks have already signed up, so I bet it will sell out.

You’ll also want to check out Josh’s upcoming UIE Virtual Seminar on Wednesday. He’s been studying how sites are integrating social features and has put together some neat insights.

Read today’s UIEtips article.

8 Responses to “UIEtips Article: Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication”

  1. Michael Zuschlag Says:

    Nice article by Porter. However, I don’t think the big problem is consumers misunderstanding the value of a product’s features. The big problem is that consumers can’t assess the value of the product’s usability. I suspect the average consumer looks at a product’s large set of peripheral features (available at little or no additional monetary cost) and thinks, “I may or may not use them. If I do, great. If I don’t, I can just ignore them. No harm done.” What consumers can’t assess is the negative impact those peripheral features may have on the usability of the core features they really need. The solution is for consumers to compare the ease of use of their core features among competing products, and factor that into their purchase decisions. The opportunity for designers and vendors is to make such comparisons easy (e.g., in-store demos, links to “quick start” documentation on the web site selling the product, on-line simulation). They say usability doesn’t sell, but have we ever actually tried?

  2. Eddie Says:

    Michael Zuschlag-

    That is exactly why I’d like to see a “Consumer Reports” type of site that focuses on the usability of the product first and foremost.

    I want “usable reviews” instead of “product reviews” Almost every review I read just tells me what’s available on the product, what features it has, and how it compares to other products, with little mention of how well all these work together. You’re lucky to get a “it has ‘feature X,’ but I found it too difficult to use…”

    I don’t mind paying more for a product, I don’t mind simplicity, I don’t mind complexity, as long has thought is put into how they are used and if they are done so intelligently. If there was a source of usability experts that wrote product reviews and solicted them from other likeminded writers, I would use that as my primary “should I buy?” research tool.

    As it is now, I look at my favorite usability/design sites and wait for the occasional product review and add it to my list of “if I’m ever looking for…”

  3. Paul Doncaster Says:

    What strikes me is that neither Josh nor Norman explicitly takes into account the age factor, which will kick in very soon when the aging boomers predominate the US purchasing market (though Norman does allude to accessibility in his essay’s addendum).

    Given the advances of the last few decades, the coming generation of seniors is probably less likely to be intimidated by new technologies. But to what degree will this be offset the various degenerations that inherently accompany aging (cognitive processing, decision-making, motor skills, peripheral vision, etc.)? Does the visibility of extra controls or an overall high-tech look carry any weight at all when it comes to forking over their hard-earned retirement allowances?

    For these users, simplicity may indeed sell. I’d like to see that as a consideration in any discussion like this.

  4. Joshua Porter Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Michael. I completely agree.

    In suggesting that we need to communicate simplicity more (in ways other than just interface design) I wasn’t ruling out a discussion of how usable or efficient something is. I think that’s definitely a good way to go, because as you say, people have a hard time assessing it. (or, as the case may be, don’t consider it at that point in the process).

    This is why videos showing actual use are so powerful on the Web. If you can show someone using a product with ease, then it becomes that much more attractive because people will gain the confidence to use it on their own.

  5. Joshua Porter Says:

    Eddie…excellent point. That would address the frustration factor…maybe that’s what they could call it…a frustration factor! 🙂

    I’ve noticed that some tech writers are beginning to go this way. For example, Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote about his frustrations with buying a new PC…and all the junk that came along with it: Using Even New PCs Is Ruined by a Tangle Of Trial Programs, Ads. This gets to your point nicely…we need to talk about the experience of owning something, not the promise of features.

  6. Jim S. Says:

    Features and simplicity is not an “either/or” choice, so you can’t be surprised that people want more feature laden products over the simpler ones. What people want is both, and they also assume that technology will help them to sort out the complexity issues, if necessary. Is anyone going to purchase Microsoft Vista thinking that it will have more features than Windows XP AND be more complex (read “less simple”) to use?? No. They expect the features AND they expect that it will be easier to use than XP (they REALLY don’t want to read any manuals on Vista).

    Features are facts and simplicity is perception. In software, in an ideal world, this means creating a product which allows users to accomplish tasks without (as much as possible) being hindered by the application.

  7. steve waldron Says:

    I have a digital camera that effectively lets me ‘dial in’ the level of complexity that I am willing to take responsibility for at any time.

    The dial has five positions: a green rectangle representing my desire for the computer to take complete responsibiliy for the shot – and I am rather hoping that engineers and expert photographers have embedded their wisdom into creating the perfect exposure setting; a P setting that lets me fiddle with the computer suggested apeture and shutter speed; two positions for letting the computer pick either shutter speed or apeture, but not both; and finally there is the M or Manual position. It’s up to me to rise to the challenge of learning how best to use that M setting and thats what makes it such an interesting and engaging product. I hope it will become simpler for me over time and I would like to think that I will use the green rectangle dial position less and less as my skill improves.

    But if the computer technology gets better and better at setting the perfect exposure, and all I am left to do is compose the picture, then will my behaviour change? Would I be bothered with setting my own exposure if I got the image I wanted with the computer doing all the complex hard work behind the scenes? Well both yes and no. For me and many others there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained from mastering a new skill, theres no pleasure from letting the machine do all the work, unless it is helping me understand or when I really dont have time to get it wrong. If it could explain its reasons for setting that exposure then effectively I would have my own personal tutor every time I switched to the green rectangle.

    So that complexity dial may begin to find its way onto many other products in the near future because it puts people back in control of their stuff. It gives them the choice on how complex their products are moment to moment rather than just that one time in the store.

  8. Betty Hastings Says:

    Unfortunately, Leonardo da Vinci never said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, as stated in the article. It would be one my favorite quotes, too, if it were true. It remains one my favorites truths, though he never said it.

    The verb ’sofisticare’ (to sofisticate) exists since the XVth century, meaning ‘to adulterate’, or ‘to use sophisms in a discussion’. But the substantive “sophistication” exists in English only since 1850, and the word in Italian came recently, as translation from the modern English. Just to have a dimension, while in English there are 36 million references in Google for “sophistication”, in Italian there are only 150 thousand.

    and that phrase is not in his writings — The word “semplicità” never appears, though one can find “semplice” and “semplici” – never in a context close to that of the phrase divulged as “his”.

    The truth is that Leonardo was never simple: his work is……… well, we could say it was sophisticated….

    If you wish, I can give you a link to all of Leonardo’s literary works, but in Italian. I couldn’t post it here, as the internet address is read as spam.

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