Balancing design simplicity, product complexity, and business growth

I wrote that tweet after an experience at work. It seemed like people were requesting to scale up the complexity of some of the features we were designing, without really any clear rationale (at least initially), and especially not following some sort of iterative release process. And the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. That is, there seems to be this idea that as designers, we work to make things simpler, and in the best of cases, we succeed. But in reality (where most of us live :P), this is not always the case, and in fact, products scale towards complexity as they become popular or successful at achieving their early goals.

Were things always this way?

In the beginning, of course, a product is not really that complex. Like a newborn, early products can begin their lives simply enough, solving one or two important problems. Think back to what iOS used to be like, before it even was called iOS.

iOS 1 vs. iOS 8, courtesy of 9to5mac.com
iOS 1 vs. iOS 8, courtesy of 9to5mac.com

Many things were much simpler back then, as compared to now. Back then you had as many apps as you could fit onto the various pages. App folders didn’t exist back then, though commonplace as they are now. But it was through these very simple, very basic interactions that people began to fall in love with the multitouch devices from Apple.

3D Touch on iOS 9, courtesy of apple.com
3D Touch on iOS 9, courtesy of apple.com

Today, we have these contextual actions, hidden behind gestures that, for the seasoned iOS warrior, make perfect sense and may be extremely useful interactions. But for the new user, these gestures may present a challenge to learn or discover naturally (Note: I haven’t tried using 3D Touch, so it’s difficult to say how easy it is… Or not…).

Complexity fuels growth?

Like it or not, these new features present a new level of complexity to what was once just a simple and direct touch-based interface; and while it was important (perhaps?) to add all these new features, the increasing complexity was what helped Apple continue to grow and scale the adoption and retention of iOS users.

And it’s not just Apple either. Many products follow a similar complexity-growth path.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop 1.0.7 running on Apple Macintosh System 6.0.8
Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop 1.0.7 running on Apple Macintosh System 6.0.8

Photoshop, in the beginning, was so basic that I doubt today’s UI designers could ever truly use this software to create what they need. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure someone could accomplish it, but to achieve the same results as with newer programs like Photoshop CC or Sketch would take a significant effort. Even considering the computer’s OS, Photoshop 1 apparently couldn’t even handle colors!

But in order to grow and expand the business, to make the product more attractive to many more different kinds of creative users, Adobe had to add features and scale up the UI to allow for those features to exist side-by-side, while still trying to hold true to the original vision of the product, which was to do image manipulation on the computer.

Is the complexity desirable?

From a pure design perspective, one would say that complexity is of course not a desirable trait to build into a product. I have sat through numerous usability test sessions where the feedback was clear: reduce complexity to make things much more easy to use. Referencing Jason’s tweet, it would also seem that reducing complexity by removing features is also just a smart business decision as well!

But it’s very difficult to just add features that help the business grow and not simultaneously add clutter to the interface, making a more complex product. As we have already seen, even for products we love to use every day, the need to add complexity to the product is core to the product lifecycle.

can we reduce the complexity?

Well, the simple answer is to just remove features, but I don’t think there’s anything really valuable in that statement. But if Jason Calacanis’ tweet (above) is any kind of signal, there’s a very good case for trying to remove things from your product that either don’t make sense, or aren’t used very much. The main problem however, is that with a strong clear track record of how complexity aids growth, the challenge to the product team is how to make your products simple again.

Focus on the very core use cases, the critical 1 to 3 things that your product must do, that your users just can’t live without, and see what happens when you strip everything else away. You could even do what Jason did, and release it as a side product, an accompaniment to the main product offering so as not to disturb your main numbers. Regardless of how you do it, there seems to be some initial evidence on the business end of things that reducing complexity just makes sense!

What next?

In the end, I don’t know if there’s anything that we, as designers, can really do to reverse the tide of complexity. Most large scale products, and I’m talking about products that reach many millions of users on a daily basis, appear to rely on new features and complexity (adding new features begets complexity) as the way in which they help the business grow. But there is some evidence, as indicated by Jason Calacanis’ tweet, that perhaps the new UX-focused businesses are helping to contribute to a more simplified future. As a designer, I can only hope that this is the case.

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Balancing design simplicity, product complexity, and business growth

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