designing simplicity

simplicity

I have been (finally) listening to the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson on audiobook and of course it got me thinking about design and simplicity. According to what I’ve been hearing, Steve Jobs was very much in favor of computers being beautifully designed, and elegantly simple to use. However, I still feel like this is a very misunderstood topic, so I thought to myself, “why not write an essay on it… ?!” Hopefully, it helps you as much as it does me. 🙂

rams
Braun Portable Transistor Radio Phonograph TP1

Less but better

You all should know the name Dieter Rams by now. I’ve talked about it on the podcast, but I keep his 10 Principles of Good Design taped up next to my monitor at my desk at work. If (for some reason) you don’t know who he is, Mr. Rams wrote these principles of design based on the work he did while employed at Braun. In his book Less, but better, in addition to his work, he writes about the story of the Braun brothers and how he came to work there. He lists out these principles of design that he tried to instill in the products that they made. Principle #10 goes as follows:

Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

What would motivate him, a designer, to say such a thing? As a designer, wouldn’t you want to do more design? After all, this is how you make a living, by designing things. Yet he says, “Good design is as little design as possible … Back to purity, back to simplicity.” And there’s that word again — simplicity. Is design somehow inherently complex? What does this principle even mean?

If I had to guess, I would think that Mr. Rams knew a lot about human behavior, perhaps without explicitly studying it. He must have known that by designing a radio (for example) with few features and very simple interactions in an simple, elegant form, people would be able to benefit from both its form and function together. And as a result, the end customer would be able to enjoy other aspects of their lives more fully because they wouldn’t have to constantly think about how to futz with their radios.

deco
Addison 2C Radio

It is also important to frame this in the right context. Mid-century modernist thinking came after other Western “design eras” such as art nouveau and art deco. Those two in particular were marked with naturalistic and organic forms, which sometimes over-complicated the way products were designed.

Compare the radio seen directly above with the upper, radio-portion of the TP1 designed by Dieter Rams (seen earlier). The design by Rams is far more austere, just the speaker holes and a small window for the dial. In contrast, while certainly a beautiful piece of Art Deco design, the Addison radio (designed earlier than Rams’ TP1) may share some of the same qualities, a speaker and a dial, but there are other qualities that also make it more complex, such as the 2-tone color, the contrasting parallel lines, and the not quite rectangular shape.

rams2
Image from dezeen.com

So what are we to make of all this? Is simplicity still relevant for today’s technology? How do we use this principle of simplicity to make products better? To begin, let’s start with thinking about how we can use this principle to help improve our designs.

Focus on one thing

First of all, simplicity is about focus. It is very important when designing a product to focus the product on just one thing. Let’s bring the principle back for a second:

Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

See? He’s talking about concentrating on what’s essential. Focus on one thing.

Too often I am in meetings having to defend my decision to suppress the impact of edge cases on the design of a product. Why? As it often happens, after the release of a product, the complaints start rolling in about the deficiencies of a product. They are probably written in reviews like this:

As a [such and such type of user], I hate your product because it doesn’t do [function] in [my very specific way that I want it].

As good-natured people, product teams strive to accommodate these demands to capture as broad a market as possible, and so they strive to add things to their products, thus setting the first pave stones on the road to complexity.

Look, as much as anyone else, I want to do what’s best for the customer. Responding to feedback is critical in that regard. But as Dieter Rams puts it, we can all achieve what’s best for the customer by concentrating on the essential aspects of a product, and not burdening all your customers with things that are non-essentials.

So when setting out to create a product, you must answer this question:

What is the one thing that my product does better than every other product on the market?

Then stick to it. Why? Because this is how you can identify what’s truly essential, and ensure that you are not throwing in a bunch of non-essential things at random.

If you got it wrong, and you may have gotten it wrong, don’t worry. That’s part of creating something valuable. Spend some time doing research on why your “one thing” didn’t work out. And only once you know for certain why it didn’t work out, then you should change things.

It works the same for designing screens. Most often, when I feel like something is getting too complicated, I ask myself “What is the one thing that the user needs to do (or know) on this particular screen?” In the concept phase, it’s super easy to just add a lot of stuff because it may seem cool or useful, and often times, you can improve your work just by answering that simple question.

Reducing complexity

Sometimes, simplicity is just about reducing the complexity of something.

I think back to when I worked on some enterprise software…

accpac-2
Something not designed by me… 😇

If you don’t know what that is, I doubt you could reason your way through it. It was my job, at one point in my life, to try to redesign that screen. Now of course, you could start with certain superficial qualities, like it’s god-awful appearance, but that would be a disservice to the end user. Instead I chose to focus on functionality first and I tried stripping out stuff that just didn’t make sense to me.

When taking over a project or redesigning something someone else made, a good starting point is to reduce complexity by removing functions. Remember the principle?

Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Eliminating the non-essential functions can help kickstart a redesign because it gets everyone involved in reassessing what somebody really needs from the product. It’s not always successful, meaning that you may not be able to remove things that seem non-essential (or just plain confusing). But making the attempt can expose some important deficiencies that can still help move things forward.

This is also why iterative, or evolutionary, product development processes can be really harmful for the customer. When you iterate on something over many years, you may end up adding a bunch of cruft to your product (to put it plainly). Some might say that adding all this stuff is good because it pleases more people, and therefore a product can make more money. This is probably only half-true. Because in my experience, products like the one I showed above, usually end up causing churn.

So sure, you may get more people to start using your product because you said that it did the things they wanted. But later, they realize the product is really complicated and leave. This means you then have to work on finding more people to throw in at the top of the funnel and hope that you can capture some kind of money before they leave. Or you work twice as hard, and try to do some kind of win-back program because you were so bad at retaining your customers in the first place.

Why do all that? Why not just make something simpler? Maybe you don’t capture all customers across all markets and segments in the first 2 months of your product’s lifecycle, but so what? In the long run, it’s better to have a product that can help you retain customers, than one that you have to constantly combat that churn metric.

Eliminate clutter

minimalism-by-hengki-koentjoro.JPG-10
Space… The final frontier…

Along with reducing complexity, simplicity can also take the form of reducing visual clutter.

I remember a time when I came up with a very simple design for a marketing project, and when I presented it, the marketing guy immediately asked “What’s with all the whitespace?” In his perspective, if there was empty space, it ought to be filled with something. Messaging, images, pricing information, just don’t leave it open.

I recall not really knowing what to say, and especially since he wouldn’t be convinced otherwise, I ended up just filling it up with stuff. In the end, the design wasn’t improved, and the project performance wasn’t any different than the other times we did a marketing project with an overly cluttered design. So make of that what you will.

This is why I refuse to do any/all marketing projects today. 🙂

The idea that just because there’s space, that it needs to be filled, is such an odd concept. Why does an empty space have to be filled?

tesla
Tesla’s cluttered interface

The brilliant thing about empty space is that it allows the user to focus. So if you’ve created a product that focuses on one thing, and allow the user to focus on that one thing, chances are they’ll see the benefit right away.

Look at Tesla’s cluttered interface (above) as a counter example. They have a giant screen in their cars and have decided to maximize every available space with buttons and controls, instead of simplifying and using whitespace to help the user focus. This strategy may work if the user is allowed unlimited time to focus on the screen, but I can tell you, learning how to operate a cluttered interface while driving a vehicle on the highway is not a good experience.

Let’s bring up the principle again:

Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Interfaces that have a lot of visual clutter stand in direct opposition to this principle. I already wrote about the idea of focus and reducing complexity in terms of how something works. But it is equally important to also think of those ideas in terms of how something looks. Chances are, if something is visually cluttered with stuff, it probably also has a lot of non-essential functions thrown into it.

Have you heard of the gestalt theory? It is essentially the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I may have mentioned it in prior blog posts. The “fill up the whitespace” theory of product design seems to think in the reverse — the parts are more important than the whole. This line of thinking will inevitably lead to complexity because a whole product that fails means there aren’t the right parts. So they add more parts to hopefully fix the whole. And I already described what happens in those scenarios.

Instead of adding more parts, by removing the ones that are non-essential, we can reduce complexity and eliminate clutter. This improves the quality of the design (its gestalt), and should make for a better product in the end.

No UI, no design?

Recently, we did a podcast on the topic of “No UI”. I thought this would be a good topic to bring up in this context because it definitely poses some interesting questions.

If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, there was an article (and later a book) by Golden Krishna titled The Best Interface is No Interface. To summarize, he puts forth the idea that in today’s tech-design universe, we are so consumed with creating interfaces that we’ve lost the idea on what design should really be there to do.

As a reminder, let’s bring the principle back again:

Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.

Back to purity, back to simplicity.

It is such a good insight, to consider not even designing a UI for something, that ties directly back to the main point of this article — Good design is as little design as possible.

Not all forms of human-computer interaction require a screen!

đŸ˜± (*shocked emoji*)

I know, right?

But especially these days, when there are new technologies enabling new forms of interaction, why even create a screen if you don’t need to?

echo
No screen here…

But even this divergence is a bit off the mark. I mean, what Mr. Krishna is getting at is simplifying the human experience of interacting with technology so that it feels more natural. We interact with screens every day. We carry screens with us wherever we go. Inadvertently, we may be conditioning ourselves to see everything in the context of an interface.

Maybe we don’t need it? Maybe we should try something else? Maybe, the solution to your problem is simply solved by not having a screen? After all, if Dieter Rams is right (and I do think he’s right), good design is as little design as possible.

Why do we even need to care?

We live in a complex world, full of complex things, made by people who seemingly can’t think simply. I say, why add to it? We don’t need to add more complexity to our already complex daily life. Isn’t the world complex enough?

simplicity

Steve Jobs wanted this for himself, I think; to simplify complex things. He looked across the burgeoning computer culture and saw a need to make things better. Of course, I don’t really know much about Mr. Jobs. I can only get second-hand information. I wasn’t there in the garage in Palo Alto, and I’ve never worked at Apple. But as far as I can understand, despite his alleged flaws as a person, the one thing he got right was that good design was essential for making good products great.

There are times at work I am reminded of this video. Please watch it if you haven’t. He talks about why it’s important for the product people to lead companies. I mean, think what you want about him as a person, and Apple as a company. But I would say a vast majority of his critics have probably not launched a product anywhere near as ubiquitous as the range of things released in his tenure at Apple.

So let’s commit to designing better products and simplify product designs by focusing on one thing, reducing complexity, and eliminating clutter. The legacy of our design history urges us to do better in the future and fortunately we can all benefit from the wisdom and principles put forth by the practitioners of the past. Back to purity, back to simplicity!


This is part of my “Year of Blogging” series for 2017. If you liked this essay, tell me about it on Twitter!

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designing simplicity

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