In Favour of Complexity

Posted by on Jun 24, 2009 in thoughts, usability | No Comments

I was fortunate enough to attend the sell-out ‘UX London’ conference at The Cumberland Hotel, Marble Arch this year (June 15th – 17th). It was the first conference if its type here in London aimed at user experience practitioners and ably presented by the good folk at Clearleft. There were some big names in attendance – both lecturing and running half-day workshops.

The conference ran over three information-filled days. Day One was lecture day, with inspirational talks from the likes of Peter Merholz, Luke Wroblewski, Dan Saffer, Jared Spool, Jeffrey Veen and most excitingly Don ‘The Don’ Norman.

Days Two and Three went into much greater detail, with interactive workshops covering all aspects of user experience practice; from sketching lessons to learning how organisations can make better decisions through design. In fact there were too many fantastic workshops to get around all of them and there were no “fillers”.

One of the highlights for me however was hearing Don Norman speak on Day One. The author of seminal books such as The Design of Everyday Things, Things That Make us Smart and more recently The Design of Future Things, Don is well known to all user experience architects and designers alike. The fact that his comments were Twittered with the hashtag ‘#TheDon’ just goes to show the affection and regard in which he is held.

Often the contrarian (“When everyone is asking for something, I tend to take the opposite approach”), Norman has recently caused minor storms by arguing that simplicity is highly overrated and that complexity is good thing. At first this approach feels wrong: as usability people, we are often in the habit of trying to make online experiences as simple as possible. Surely complexity can only harm the experience and put customers off?

Norman offers a familiar example of simplicity: the Google search homepage – often quoted as the epitome of the simple. Without a doubt, Google is by far and away the most popular search engine. And yet Yahoo! have the most popular homepage and it’s packed with information. Yahoo! is optimised for exploration, with Google it takes a little more work. You might argue that these two homepages are different products but the sheer popularity of  Yahoo! goes some way to show that complex pages are popular.

Another example: the iPhone is often touted as simple and consumer-friendly. And yet with a new software update, Apple has added 100 extra new features. How is this level of complexity compatible with the idea of a simple product? One might argue it’s because users have learnt how to use the device and are now demanding more advanced tools (like Copy and Paste).

There appears to be a fundamental conflict here: when asked, people will demand simplicity (“Why is it so hard to use?”, “Why can’t products be simpler?” [1]) but when you watch these same people comparing products side-by-side, it is the number of features that sell a product. People want more features even when they realise this must complicate the product. People believe that as you add features you add capability, thereby making more feature-laden products more desirable. However, as user experience professionals, we believe adding more features decreases usability. Both positions, Norman argues, are wrong. “We must distinguish complexity from confusion, perplexity, and unintelligibility. The goal is complexity with order, lucidity and understandability.”

People prefer complex things. If it’s too simple, it gets boring. Once a user gains experience with a product, the user moves into a new role; that of the Intermediate and suddenly their perception of what is complex changes.

An aside – roughly speaking, there are three classes of user: the Beginner, the Intermediate and the Expert. If we plot the number of people against perceived skill level, like most population distributions we get the classic statistical bell curve, with most users situated in the middle of the curve at ‘Intermediate’. It stands to reason therefore, that these are the users we should spend the most amount of time designing for. And yet it’s often the Beginners and the Experts who get the most attention. The Product Manager demands the Beginner must be able to hit the ground running and yet the engineer or developer, if left to their own devices, designs for their own skill-level – that of the Expert.

So how does Norman suggest we solve the complexity problem? Unsurprisingly the first approach should be through well-researched design. By modularising actions we can contain the complexity and by teaching users as they go, we can help them manage complex interactions.

I’ll leave the last few words to The Don himself: “Why are things so complex? Because the world is complex. Our tools must reflect reality. Complexity can be good, leading to a rich, satisfying life, filled with rich, satisfying experiences.”

And again: “The mark of the great designer is the ability to provide what people need without excessive complexity, without feature bloat. Simplicity should never be the goal. Follow the famous Einstein quote: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Complex things will require complexity. It is the job of the designer to manage that complexity with skill and grace.”[2]


To Luke W for his notes on the lecture that were far more comprehensive than my own.

And to the Twitterers who helped refresh my memory.



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