Simplicity Ain’t So Simple (Or Even Desirable)

September 26th, 2010 from The Driblet of an Aphorism

After reading Donald Norman's insightful piece entitled Simplicity is not the Answer, I have been pondering the notion of simplicity as it exists in Libre culture. It is a very hot buzzword in Libre culture. Perhaps at least as hot as other worthless and empty terms.

Simplicity isn't Simple

What does simple mean? Has anyone stopped to ask that question around these parts? Simple, it seems, isn't so simple. Above and beyond the foolish assumptions and empty definitions, there has been a uniquely Libre lack of insight regarding desirability.

Is Simple Synonymous with Desirability?

Seems like a foolish question at first doesn't it? Everyone wants simple, correct?

If we scratch past the surface, we have some pretty compelling research to suggest that, in fact, notions of simple are not only horribly complicated, but also that the desire and appeal of simple is tied to extremely complex circumstances and contexts. Donald Norman cites a cultural context example:
"But in the Korean store, I found a German toaster for 250,000 Korean Won (about $250). It had complex controls, a motor to lower the untoasted bread and to lift it when finished, and an LCD panel with many cryptic icons, graphs, and numbers. Simplicity?
Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past, if it ever existed." -- Donald Norman from Simplicity is Highly Overrated
While simplicity within Libre culture is not only subject to grossly inept explorations, our culture typically makes the cardinal sin of avoiding the audience context. As Donald Norman cites above, there are clearly some disparate views on simplicity between cultures. Francisco Inchauste explores this further:
"In South Korea, for example, products like refrigerators are designed to appear more complex than non-Korean ones, even when the prices and specifications are very similar, because that complexity is equated with sophistication and value, and is thus a symbol of prosperity." -- Francisco Inchauste The Dirtiest Word in uX: Complexity
Of Hedonists and Pragmatics

If we subscribe to the idea that simplicity isn't quite as simple as some would have us believe, we potentially open the door for insight into when or if simple would be valued to the audience at hand.

When is simplicity desirable? For whom?

Simplicity, as we have seen in the above examples, clearly has a few roots in cultural context. As any reader of this blog knows, there are countless times I harp on the notion of audience. It is for good reason. Audience brings context. Audience determines the needs of the experience. Audience determines the facets of the design.

But what if we lock in on an audience? Is it possible to deduce when an audience may desire simple and when they may not?

At the topmost layer of Mr. Hassenzahl's work is the notion that there is a polemical division between Hedonistic and Pragmatic needs.
"The hedonic/pragmatic model of UX assumes that people perceive interactive products along two different dimensions. Pragmatics refers to the product's perceived ability to support the achievement of "do-goals", such as "making a telephone call", "finding a book in an online bookstore", "setting-up a webpage". In contrast, hedonics refers to the product's perceived ability to support the achievement of "be-goals", such as "being competent", "being related to others", "being special"." -- Marc Hassenzahl and others Towards a UX Manifesto (Page 10)
Of particular relevance to simplicity here is Mr. Hassenzahl's research notes an interesting axis between simple-complex and ordinary-novel.
"The model further assumes that people have implicit notions of the relation between particular attributes (e.g., simple–complex, ordinary–novel) and pragmatics or hedonics, respectively (in the sense of means-end-chains, see Reynolds & Olson, 2001). Simplicity, for example, may signal high pragmatics, whereas novelty may suggest high hedonics. Or to put it differently: Simplicity suggests fulfillment of do-goals, whereas novelty suggests fulfillment of be-goals." -- Marc Hassenzahl and others Towards a UX Manifesto (Page 10)
Simple Collides with Airplane Cockpits

Thus far, there is at least a solid body of evidence to suggest that a complex weave of contextual and circumstantial factors dictate the desirability of Simplicity. Simplicity isn't always desirable. Simplicity is likely moored in cultural vantages.

Mr. Inchauste uses the image of a plane's cockpit to illustrate what complicated looks like. To an untrained pilot, a plane's cockpit is most certainly an intimidating view.

But given a very specific audience, in this instance a trained pilot, a plane's cockpit is a summation of a number of factors. The complexities of piloting a jet obviously dictate how many features are required. The historical and contextual needs of piloting jet aircraft dictate that there will be a given degree of similarity between various models.

Ultimately, the question facing Libre software design is "When is simple good and desirable?"

From Questions to Evaluation

Given the citations, it might be worth exploring a series of questions when designing a Libre application.
  • Who is the application for and what is the cultural context? Simplicity may have reduced value in certain cultural contexts.
  • What are the audience's needs? If the needs are of a be-goal nature, novelty might yield higher dividends over simplicity.
  • What is the audience's level of expertise? Expertise levels drive needs and resultant concepts of simplicity.
  • If the application is of a do-goal variant, is there a need for contextual similarity with other designs and why? Moving a jet pilot's controls to a different formation or layout will likely have an adverse impact on her notions of simplicity, if it even were a question at all.
  • Has there been sufficient research on the particular audience? Concrete understanding of the needs and expectations of a given audience will help cultivate useful insights into how that audience experiences simple.
Don't Be A Cheerleader

If there is one thing that I'd like everyone to take with them after making it to this point in this post, it is the humble request that we stop being cheerleaders. Repeating empty terms and phrases is not helping us or our knowledge of design.

Investigate. Research. Think.

There are likely more than a few places in Libre culture where our designs are the equivalent of an unreduced fraction - overly complicated in communicating identical values. This post isn't about that. This post is about being considerate about context. It is about avoiding assumptions when we set forth in our efforts to design the future.

The problem is likely not at all about complexity or how we design around it, but rather in our inability to deduce when and how much complexity is required.

That question, again, starts with who. The answer starts and ends with that audience. Don't be an unsympathetic guesser and assumer. Be an empathetic and inquisitive questioner.

Leave those buzzwords and golden rules for those that enjoy chasing leprechauns.

Thank you all for reading.