At the Ref Desk (1/5/21): First shift of the year! [more...]

The Gift to Be Simple

Submitted by Leo Klein on Mon, 12/11/06 (3:20pm)

It had to happen. First there was the period of experimentation on the Web. Websites were meant to be "explored" we were told -- even the more mundane ones. When that didn't seem to work out, the pendulum swung the other way in favor of clean and simple design. The search screen of Google comes to mind.

Now the question is, are we experiencing a backlash to the backlash?

First, there's the article by noted design theorist Don Norman entitled, 'Simplicity Is Highly Overrated', which concludes:

Yes, we want simplicity, but we don’t want to give up any of those cool features. Simplicity is highly overrated.

(more after the jump...)

Next we have Joel on Software arguing that simplicity "will not work as a good long term strategy". I'm reminded of the librarian discussing his new website who said users only understood the search box on every page when there were three search boxes to choose from.

Don Norman asks us rhetorically,

"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.

I admit it. I'm looking for a phone at the moment that does everything but light up the driveway when I get home. I love features as much as the next guy.

But it's important to realize a simple fact: people want the features but they don't want the complexity. Furthermore, they'll prove extremely reluctant to try out a site, if in order to accomplish their goals they've got to master every feature on the thing. If this weren't the case, 'Advance Search' would be the first stop of even our most neophyte users.


1 comment

by Leo Klein on Mon, 12/11/06 (5:27pm)

(Letter to Don Norman)

Dear Mr. Norman,

The moment I read your article, "Simplicity Is Highly Overrated", I imagined ten thousand supervisors all coming up to me and demanding that I build into the interface their desired feature.

I have a feeling this isn't what you intended.

So let me share a story.

In your article you mention going to the department store and looking at all the appliances including the washing machines.

Some of those washing machines sounded pretty complex. They also sounded pretty familiar. The management company for our apartment building just put in four models that have all the lights, knobs and controls of a jet airplane.

I'm smart enough to know how to navigate the slew of options so the thing does what I want -- in my case, wash my clothes. (I'll admit though I have no idea what the "8 Hour" option is.)

The other day however, I noticed that one of the doors had been ripped off on one of the new machines. It looked like someone or something had smashed against it tearing off the handle and lid.

Naturally I reported this. The guy from the management company told me they already knew about this and that it wasn't something that brushed against the machine but rather someone who couldn't figure out how to open it.

In other words, the complexity of the controls were such that the person using it couldn't figure out how to open the door to get his clothes out. In his frustration, he simply crowbarred the thing open.

I know that's not at all the degree of desperation that you intend to leave your users in but it is the real-life consequence of going for one of these highfalutin whizzbang machines. They may not be the best solution.


Leo Klein