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Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication

by Joshua Porter
on April 11, 2007

Is simplicity a bad design goal?

Most designers place simplicity above all else. We value simple things because
they do all the things we need easily and none of the things we don’t. Simplicity
is harmonious. Even Leonardo Da Vinci said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This
is one of my favorite quotes, and it plays on the idea that being simple isn’t
banal, it’s elegant.

Don Norman recently ignited a discussion about simplicity in his piece Simplicity
is Highly Overrated
. He observes that although designers treat simplicity
as the ultimate goal, many consumers, when faced with a purchase decision,
choose complexity instead. He uses examples from shopping in South Korea:
people there choose complex, feature-laden electronics and SUVs over simpler
ones. Norman says that people choose complexity because they assume a complex
product is more capable. He concludes:

“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. You do it too, I bet. 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.”

Many points of view on simplicity

The reaction to Norman’s piece has shown there are many points of view on
simplicity! Here are a few:

Joel Spolsky, a software developer, agrees
with Norman
and says: “With six years of experience running my own software
company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased
our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features.”

Scott Berkun, in In Defense
of Simplicity
argues that “we shouldn’t confuse the success of feature-laden
crap as a signal for the irrelevance of simplicity any more than the success
of Rocky IV and Burger King signaled the irrelevance of good film-making
or fine dining.”.

Mark Hurst suggests that “what
people are really buying is a good experience. Sometimes simple is good, and
sometimes complex is good, depending on what a good experience is in a given

Luke Wroblewski, in The
Complexity of Simplicity
, observed “Perceived simplicity can often conflict
with actual simplicity of usage.”

And John Maeda, in Complexity
is Highly Overrated
, points out that “complexity is highly overrated
as well. The relationship flips when one becomes dominant, and the other
becomes subjugate.”

But even after reading all of these thoughts on simplicity, I’m not sure if
we’re closer to answering the question implicit in Norman’s article: Is simplicity
a bad design goal?

The Paradox of Choice and trade-offs

But there may be light at the end of this tunnel. At our User
Interface Conference
in 2006, our plenary speaker Barry Schwartz shared
research from his book, The
Paradox of Choice
, which is full of insight into why people make the
choices they do. I think that his research can really help us navigate this
sticky simplicity issue.

In particular, Barry talks about the idea of a “trade-off.” A trade-off happens
when choosing one thing means that you’re getting less of something else. Here
is one experiment Barry describes in which participants have to make a trade-off
when choosing between cars:

"Participants were told that Car A costs $25,000 and ranks high in
safety (8 on a 10-point scale). Car B ranks 6 on a the safety scale. Participants
were then asked how much Car B would have to cost to be as attractive as
Car A. Answering this question required making a trade-off, in this case,
between safety and price. It required asking how much each extra unit of
safety was worth. If someone were to say, for example, that Car B was only
worth $10,000, they would clearly be placing great value on the extra safety
afforded by Car A. If instead they were to say that Car B was worth $22,000,
they would be placing much less value on the extra safety afforded by Car
A. Participants performed this task with little apparent difficulty. A little
while later, though, they were confronted with a second task. They were presented
with a choice between Car A, safety rating 8 and price $25,000, and Car B,
safety rating 6, and the price they had previously said made the two cars
equally attractive. How did they choose between two equivalent alternatives?

Since the alternatives were equivalent, you might expect that about half
the people would choose the safer, more expensive car and half would choose
the less safe, cheaper car. But that is not what the researchers found. Most
participants chose the safer, more expensive car. When forced to choose,
most people refused to trade safety for price. They acted as if the importance
of safety to their decision was so great that price was essentially irrelevant…

Even though their decision was purely hypothetical, participants experienced
substantial negative emotion when choosing between Cars A and B. And if the
experimental procedure gave them the opportunity, they refused to make the
decision at all. So the researchers concluded that being forced to confront
trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive…

Confronting any trade-off, it seems, is incredibly unsettling. And as the
available alternatives increase, the extent to which choices will require
trade-offs will increase as well."

The psychology of trade-offs, features, and simplicity

Let’s consider this insight as it relates to the simplicity problem. Users face a trade-off when they must make a choice between a simple product or a complex product with more features. If they choose the product with
fewer features and eventually need some functionality that is missing, they’ve made a bad choice. However, when users choose the complex product
with more features, they don’t have to make this trade-off. The complex product is more likely to have the feature users may need in the future.

People are reluctant to make trade-offs because they can’t predict what functionality they will
need in the future. Choosing a product with fewer features is a trade-off that
could hurt them down the line. When users don’t understand the advantages of each
feature, such as when a user is buying her first digital camera, they are
much more likely to avoid making a trade-off by choosing the feature-laden

When users choose a feature-laden product, they may not be exhibiting a desire for complexity. Instead, users are anxious about predicting their future needs. The black/white distinction of “choosing complexity over simplicity” seems
too blunt an instrument to describe the behavior we see from users. Schwartz’ theory suggests that people in this type of situation
don’t know enough about the features of a product or their own needs. The result is
that users avoid making a trade-off by choosing the one that looks like it has more

What does this mean for designers?

What does this mean for your design team? Certainly, following Norman’s conclusion
that people choose complex over simple would suggest that teams
strive for complex designs with many features. It may not be right aesthetically, but it is better
for the bottom line.
Norman states it plainly: “the truth is, simplicity does not sell.”

But Schwartz’ description of trade-offs suggests a different approach. Instead of focusing on adding features, design teams should focus on helping users find out what they really need before they
purchase. When design teams understand that buyers want to avoid trade-offs, they can use this insight to their advantage.

By understanding what users really need, design teams will prevent users from falling into the trap of assuming that complexity equals
capability. The trick is to communicate to your customers before
they purchase. Designers (and this includes copy writers!) must communicate
that a product contains all of the features users need (or will need), while also communicating
that each of those necessary features is simple to use. This will prevent users from
worrying about trade-offs and provide people with the confidence that they’re choosing
the right product.

Simplicity reaches beyond the interface

Simplicity isn’t a bad design goal; complexity isn’t a good one. As Schwartz’
insight into user behavior suggests, simplicity goes beyond the interface of
the product to the decision process surrounding it. We want simple decisions
as much as simple products.

In other words, the experience of buying a product is more than just how the
product looks. The larger process of buying, trying out, reading the
box,  and talking to the salesperson also comes into play. Unfortunately, in
our world of cheap, hastily designed, me-too products most of these other issues
aren’t considered. Design teams that take advantage of these
influence points will move purchasers away from a superficial choice based
on the way the product looks and help them answer the question, "Is this
product right for me?"

When the elegant balance of being and communicating simplicity is achieved,
Leonardo once again proves his genius. Simplicity is the
ultimate sophistication. •

Want to Learn More from Joshua Porter?

Check out the UIE Virtual Seminar Archived Recording of Social Design: Designning for the Social Lives of Users, presented by Joshua Porter. Josh discusses how you can learn from the success of web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Craiglist.

Send us your thoughts on this article on the UIE Brain Sparks blog.