Blog post

Simplicity Is Not Overrated – It’s Misunderstood

By Brian Prentice | August 24, 2010 | 2 Comments

Feature-itis & The Design Imperative

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.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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  • friarminor says:

    Simplicity? Misunderstood? Only in the sense that it is quite difficult to achieve and is really a direction that often goes against the grain. Yes, it’s quite a challenge but you only have to look at the arts and design industry to get that whiff of inspiration.

    It happens quite a few times but somehow when it translates to good applications, it’s a hit.

    Reminds me of a post back then on SAAS Simplicity:

  • I couldn’t agree more that Simplicity is an essential characteristic and that whether users choose simplicity is a

    matter of how the choice is being framed.

    Thinking about products which are well conceived, (in terms of user interface and the process users go through

    to obtain functionality), the truly great, the Eureka products tend to be simple to use. That doesn’t mean they

    aren’t feature rich, just that the features don’t require a great deal of work to produce results or functionality.

    Nokia’s cell phone software when it first came out was incredibly simple and incredibly functional. It allowed

    users to do everything other phones did, but it was so easy because the hierarchy of features put “userful” stuff

    first. It also did things in an intuitive way like put contact names in alphabetical order rather than in the

    order they were entered (like Motorola software did).

    Clearly it is more difficult to create a product which is simple on the outside but complex on the inside. Unfortunately consumers have been trained to think that more is better and often think that more buttons means better products. The key is educating the customer about how the a product takes care of doing the heavy lifting so that the user can enjoy the functionality without having to work too hard.