Last week Gartner launched our special report on Application Overhaul (a Gartner subscription is required). There are a number of different facets to this research – how to strategize, modernize, rationalize, standardize, govern and simply the application portfolios managed by enterprises today.
I’m the guy working on the simplicity workstream.
So, I thought I would try and kick off an ongoing conversation about application simplicity on the Gartner Blogger Network by disagreeing with a giant on the topic of design, Don Norman (author of books such as The Design of Everday Things, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, and The Design of Future Things).
I hate to do this but I have no choice! Because while I’m saying that simplicity is absolutely essential in the way we plan and construct applications, Norman is on record saying that simplicity is overrated. Specifically, he says:
Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?
Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past, if it ever existed.
He goes on to make the point:
Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity
The essence of Norman’s initial point is perfectly valid – people want features. But in reality they only want features that make a product do what they want it to do. They’re not interested in the features needed to get the product to do things that other people want it to do.
But Norman presents a false dichotomy – it’s either features or simplicity. Inherent in this position is a view that simplicity’s primary characteristic is the absence of features. In fact the defining characteristic of simplicity is the relevance of features. An increase in features is not mutually exclusive with simplicity. It is only when the next additional feature has no particular value to the majority of it’s intended audience that you enter into the world of confusing products.
Simplicity’s biggest obstacle is not fickle customers. It’s lazy design. It’s really hard to craft product segments based on the careful observation of people, the challenges they face and the varying different capacities they have using a product. So product developers don’t bother. They either throw every conceivable feature into a product and let a user interface designer, or the customer, figure it out. Or they segment features based on marketing-crafted product bands which are created not with people in mind but on margin maximization.
So, is it true that when given a choice people will take the item that does more? That, of course, depends on how the choice is being framed.
In his article, Norman highlights a specific example of a Siemens washing machine which was purposely designed with more controls and buttons even though the machine could effectively automate most everything itself. According to Siemens usability expert, automation was akin to a loss of control (how uniquely German). But Norman goes on to make the following observation:
Would you pay more money for a washing machine with less controls? In the abstract, maybe. At the store? Probably not.
That is not a question about the value of simplicity. That is a question of justifying a company’s banding strategy. If your goal is to get a customer to pay $2000 for a washing machine then yes, I guess I can understand the desire to add some fancy doohickies.
Of course, this example obviously misses the alternative most people would prefer to be presented with – is there a lower-priced option that only does the stuff I need it to do. What is that right mix of price vs. features? Ah, there’s the hard work. But banding is the easy way out. And if a low-end product exists only to capture customers not prepared to pay for the premium product then chances are it won’t be successful. And chances are that a bunch of marketing types will be saying to each other, “see, people want more stuff – we made it simple and they didn’t buy.”
But if the work is done to understand the customer and what they need then you get a different result. Just consider something like the Flip Video Camera. Here we have a product, designed to simplify video by removing features superfluous to the requirements of many people while being offered at a much lower price. The result – a highly successful product which is now being copied by competitors.
Where Norman and I agree is in the importance of design. But most technologists see design as being an aesthetic and structural activity. That all we need to do to tackle complexity is to re-order, re-package and re-present a growing list of features.
But what I’m asserting is that complexity will never be tackled, nor simplicity achieved, without a central focus on conceptual design. The central question of design is not how a product does something but why it does it in the first place. And that question can only be answered with an intimate understanding of the people we’re designing for. If we get conceptual design right than what naturally falls out is the realization that every product has an inherent functional vanishing point. Identifying that is the essence of simplicity.
Make no mistake – simplicity is not overrated. It is critical. And while I’ve been looking at the consumer product space in this blog, the lessons here are as relevant to the enterprise IT organization and the technology they manage. Simplicity equals relevance. And IT organizations that continue to ignore this will find that they will have a growing relevance problem with their users.