Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sketching on Simplicity As Qualitative Perceptual Concept

I read this Fast Company article The Beauty of Simplicity

Marissa Mayer, who keeps Google's home page pure, understands that less is more. Other tech companies are starting to get it, too. Here's why making things simple is the new competitive advantage.

And I thought I'd write up some thoughts regarding the notion of 'simplicity'. This is really just a collection of notes, some initial sketching.

In software development, software user-interfaces and design, there's a lot of talk around about simplicity. In the latter two categories, Google's main page and Apple's iPod are common examples. I think this is, on the whole, good, but sometimes I also think Simplicity is treated as a fairly mindless slogan.

As a concept, 'simplicity' is what you could call a qualitative perceptual concept. We look at or interact with something and we get this qualitative feeling that it is simple. But we have trouble going past this qualitative feeling and expressing exactly what it is that gives it simplicity. I think this level of understanding is a bit too vague for pratical terms.

Simplicity seems to be associated with the number of features the item has. But I think that's only a rough correlation, and it's not really what causes things to be 'simple' or 'complex'. Simplicity is not simply having fewer features, and complexity is not simply having more features.

I think that what we call simplicity is really a matter of good design: design that gest the right trade offs for our perceptual and conceptual capabilities, for the sorts of uses we put the software of device to, etc. What we really need is a concrete, sharp understanding of what creates good design, and what doesn't.

The problem with qualatative perceptual is when we start to reasoning in terms them, especially if we are not critical enough when doing so. If we start reasoning back from our qualiatative picture of simplicity as number of features, we start concluding things like a larger number of features as being out-of-hand bad.

Making this worse, when we come to realise recognise something as important, we can be too eager to apply it. It's like saying that when all you've got is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. We start to see it as an end in itself, not simply as an important factor among others.

We tend to associate sophistication with complexity, but these are not necessarily the same. I’m reminded of what Edward Tufte says in his book Envisioning Information, that to make information simpler and easier to digest, the simple-minded view is to give the user less information, where in fact, giving them more information can actually make it easier.

Also, when we're thinking in terms of such qualitative concepts, there's no check on things becoming too subjective. For example, we can falsely attribute out difficultites conceptualising and getting the hang of something that works differently to its complexity. It might not be any more complex. The problem is, when we talk about simplicity and complexity, we're talking about our experience, not the thing itself.

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