Simplicity is a challenging topic, because it’s one of these things that everyone intuitively recognizes and thus everyone knows, but very few really do. Once you switch from using to designing, this bias emerges in multiple ways.
Norman himself tried to shed some clarity in this challenging topic, and got some pushback:
“But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.”
— D. Norman (2007) Simplicity Is Highly Overrated
This paragraph expresses perfectly the tension: simplicity has a big component of subjectivity, and even more, it’s influenced by the actual usage. A tool that looks simple might turn out to be featureless, banal and limited. In other words: simplistic. It’s easy to look simple when taking a simplistic approach.
The other issue is that a truly simple approach results obvious, even if it behind the scenes is able to abstract a lot of complexity properly. This is why it’s hard to recognize the hard work behind a truly simple design: once it’s done, it becomes obvious, boring. It’s inherent of a well done simple design the fact that we don’t perceive it. We don’t perceive the value of it exactly because it achieves its objective of being simple.
And that’s why, as Norman puts it well:
Looking simple was the culprit. if it looks simple, he seemed to think, it must not be powerful.
The complex expensive toaster? I bet it sells well.
And that’s a problem. A truly simple product would be better, but won’t sell unless you’re able to sell it for something different. Unless your marketing is good and you’re able to make people understand why.
And even there, there will still be people that prefer the complex ones. That’s ok. Not just because of personal preference, but also because for certain people the complex one is actually simple enough given the task they want to achieve.
In a sense, understanding and buying a truly simple object means projecting yourself forward on the moments when you’re using it, and the goal. Means not looking the moment at hand, but the moment in the future when you see yourself freed up by it.
…unless you like playing with it, but that’s an entirely different goal, isn’t it? ;)
Trying to break down a bit more the problem, there are a few elements that play a role in simple designs:
- Perception — does it look and feel simple? at first sight? when I start using it?
- Society — is simplicity correlated with status? or complex-looking things are sought after? is there peer pressure for “using a more powerful thing”?
- Familiarity — am I already experienced in using this object? did I spend much time with similar objects?
- Experience — am I an expert or a novice in this field? do I need basic or advanced things? would I be satisfied with a result not 100% matching my desires, but entirely automated?
- User — who am I? what do I need this tool for? what’s my goal?
All these things compound in making something perceived as simple. A new tool identical to a super-complex one I’ve used for years and I know in detail will be “simple” for me. If I like playing with the tool itself, then complexity is part of the enjoyment I take from it. If society correlates status with simplicity, then owning a simpler object, even if it’s not simple but simplistic, will be sought after. And so on.
In my view Norman did a good job in that article. I just feel that the title is not aligned to the content, and that can skew the perception of the content itself. Simplicity isn’t overrated. Simplicity is challenging, not just in doing it, but also in communicating it.
But it’s worth it.