Sunday, December 31, 2006

Norman and Spolsky on ‘Simplicity’

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that the currently popular obsession with ‘simplicity’ is a bit misplaced. People's notion of simplicity is quite vague, and what they're talking is not really realy simplicity, anyway. Value attributed to 'simplicity' is often the result of other properties.

Recently there’s been a couple of articles on a similar theme in the blogosphere, one by Donald Norman and two by Joel Spolsky. I’ll take them in turn.

Norman’s article is called ‘Simplicity Is Highly Overrated’. I think highly of Donald Norman, from reading his “The Design of Everyday Things” book, but I think this article is a bit superficial. What he’s really arguing is about what people tend to want -- which he says is appliances with more features -- rather than being about the relative merits of simple or complex appliances.

Spolsky argues that what people label as ‘simplicity’ isn’t really simplicity at all, but something that is both different and more specific: specific sorts of functionality

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”
A lot of people say that iPods are successful because they are simple, and he comments on this:
I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you'll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success.
To summarise his argument, he thinks that people tend to talk of simplicity as ‘minimal and focused set of features’, yet the only potentially valuable sorts of simplicity -- which aren’t really simplicity per se -- are where there’s a close fit between user model and the program model, resulting in ease of use, or where there’s a ‘minimalistic aesthetic’.
If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as "Southampton WASP," fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means "not very many features" or "does one thing and does it well," then I applaud your integrity but you can't go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.
Slashdot has a discussion of these two articles.

In another article, Spolsky refines his point a bit. He talks about the notion of ‘elegance’ meaning 'grace and economy at achieving some task', which is related to simplicity (and, though he doesn’t make this point explicit, what people often really mean when they talk about ‘simplicity’). He says that while ‘elegance’ is valuable, ‘fewer features/capabilities' -- which is often what people talk about simplicity as -- is not so useful.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article.

    I also hold Don Norman in high regard. I finally got around to blogging about his essay yesterday, and Norman acknowledged that his article contained "oversimplified generalizations." You can see his reply in the comments here:

    Simplicity isn't dead

    He had more to say about the iPod, too. ;-)

    I see that John Maeda at "The Laws of Simplicity" has also taken up this topic today:

    Complexity is highly overrated

    Happy New Year!