Mar 21, 2014
In 1977 a recently incorporated, little known company introduced the Apple II computer with a marketing brochure whose front cover consisted of just a photo of an apple and a few words. The headline was, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” That particular phrase is attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, whose genius requires no introduction. The idea is that simplicity implies a succinct, refined, high-quality craft. Still operating under that same mindset, Apple has since become the 2nd-most valuable company in the world (that is, as of just a few days ago, when Exxon claimed number 1 after a 2 year run by Apple).
About 7 years ago Don Norman, usability expert and author of The Design of Everyday Things, wrote a paper titled, “Simplicity is highly overrated.” In it, he talked specifically about consumers, explaining that simplicity is overrated because it doesn’t sell. When given the option between two similar products, the one with more features would sell more often. Norman received a lot of criticism over this paper because most designers believed that a simple approach was always better. The reason his paper caused backlash was not because Norman was wrong, it was because there are two ways to view simplicity.
Steve Jobs’ view of simplicity was that it describes elegant solutions to difficult, underlying problems. Don Norman’s view of simplicity is that it demonstrates a lack of capability. These competing views expose a fundamental divide in human perception: the optimist versus the pessimist. In order to master simplicity, a design must satisfy both schools of thought.
Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, once said, “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.…You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” Notice how Ive asks you to shift your perception of simplicity from “decluttered” to “essential.”
When designing, regardless of whether the thing you’re creating is an interface or a physical product or a piece of content, it’s important to dive deep into the problem you’re trying to solve with your design. Develop a thorough understanding of the problem through rigorous research on how people react to it, how people are currently solving it, different people’s understanding of it, and the context surrounding it.
Occam’s razor states that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” This holds true for simplicity in design. The purpose of all of your research is to effectively minimize the number of assumptions you make when designing. Your goal is to replace the “I feel like most people would prefer…” approach to design with a confident, assumption-free (or as close as you can get) approach.
Take note that minimizing assumptions does not mean minimizing features. In his paper, Don Norman shared a story about a trip he took to South Korea. As he walked through a retail store, he was intrigued by how complex Korean products appeared compared to their non-Korean versions. When he asked his guides why they told him that “Koreans like things to look complex.” In Korea, applying a “fewest features” view of simplicity to product design would be an example of a terribly incorrect assumption.
After thinking about and exploring the simplicity debate via the ideas of some of the most influential designers and user experience experts, I’ve concluded that simplicity is subjective. Simplicity is defined by the user.
No matter how many features your design has, when a person uses your design to solve a problem in a way that makes them feel the most comfortable, confident and delighted, then you have mastered simplicity.