Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication

by Joshua Porter

Is simplicity a bad design goal?

Most designers place simplicity above all else. We value simple things because they do all the things we need easily and none of the things we don’t. Simplicity is harmonious. Even Leonardo Da Vinci said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This is one of my favorite quotes, and it plays on the idea that being simple isn’t banal, it’s elegant.

Don Norman recently ignited a discussion about simplicity in his piece Simplicity is Highly Overrated. He observes that although designers treat simplicity as the ultimate goal, many consumers, when faced with a purchase decision, choose complexity instead. He uses examples from shopping in South Korea: people there choose complex, feature-laden electronics and SUVs over simpler ones. Norman says that people choose complexity because they assume a complex product is more capable. He concludes:

“Make it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet. Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person.”

Many Points of View on Simplicity

The reaction to Norman’s piece has shown there are many points of view on simplicity! Here are a few:

Joel Spolsky, a software developer, agrees with Norman and says: “With six years of experience running my own software company I can tell you that nothing we have ever done at Fog Creek has increased our revenue more than releasing a new version with more features.”

Scott Berkun, in In Defense of Simplicity argues that “we shouldn’t confuse the success of feature-laden crap as a signal for the irrelevance of simplicity any more than the success of Rocky IV and Burger King signaled the irrelevance of good film-making or fine dining.”.

Mark Hurst suggests that “what people are really buying is a good experience. Sometimes simple is good, and sometimes complex is good, depending on what a good experience is in a given context.”

Luke Wroblewski, in The Complexity of Simplicity, observed “Perceived simplicity can often conflict with actual simplicity of usage.”

And John Maeda, in Complexity is Highly Overrated, points out that “complexity is highly overrated as well. The relationship flips when one becomes dominant, and the other becomes subjugate.”

But even after reading all of these thoughts on simplicity, I’m not sure if we’re closer to answering the question implicit in Norman’s article: Is simplicity a bad design goal?

The Paradox of Choice and trade-offs

But there may be light at the end of this tunnel. At our User Interface Conference in 2006, our plenary speaker Barry Schwartz shared research from his book, The Paradox of Choice, which is full of insight into why people make the choices they do. I think that his research can really help us navigate this sticky simplicity issue.

In particular, Barry talks about the idea of a “trade-off.” A trade-off happens when choosing one thing means that you’re getting less of something else. Here is one experiment Barry describes in which participants have to make a trade-off when choosing between cars:

“Participants were told that Car A costs $25,000 and ranks high in safety (8 on a 10-point scale). Car B ranks 6 on a the safety scale. Participants were then asked how much Car B would have to cost to be as attractive as Car A. Answering this question required making a trade-off, in this case, between safety and price. It required asking how much each extra unit of safety was worth. If someone were to say, for example, that Car B was only worth $10,000, they would clearly be placing great value on the extra safety afforded by Car A. If instead they were to say that Car B was worth $22,000, they would be placing much less value on the extra safety afforded by Car A. Participants performed this task with little apparent difficulty. A little while later, though, they were confronted with a second task. They were presented with a choice between Car A, safety rating 8 and price $25,000, and Car B, safety rating 6, and the price they had previously said made the two cars equally attractive. How did they choose between two equivalent alternatives?

Since the alternatives were equivalent, you might expect that about half the people would choose the safer, more expensive car and half would choose the less safe, cheaper car. But that is not what the researchers found. Most participants chose the safer, more expensive car. When forced to choose, most people refused to trade safety for price. They acted as if the importance of safety to their decision was so great that price was essentially irrelevant…

Even though their decision was purely hypothetical, participants experienced substantial negative emotion when choosing between Cars A and B. And if the experimental procedure gave them the opportunity, they refused to make the decision at all. So the researchers concluded that being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive…

Confronting any trade-off, it seems, is incredibly unsettling. And as the available alternatives increase, the extent to which choices will require trade-offs will increase as well.”

The Psychology of Trade-offs, Features, and Simplicity

Let’s consider this insight as it relates to the simplicity problem. Users face a trade-off when they must make a choice between a simple product or a complex product with more features. If they choose the product with fewer features and eventually need some functionality that is missing, they’ve made a bad choice. However, when users choose the complex product with more features, they don’t have to make this trade-off. The complex product is more likely to have the feature users may need in the future.

People are reluctant to make trade-offs because they can’t predict what functionality they will need in the future. Choosing a product with fewer features is a trade-off that could hurt them down the line. When users don’t understand the advantages of each feature, such as when a user is buying her first digital camera, they are much more likely to avoid making a trade-off by choosing the feature-laden product.

When users choose a feature-laden product, they may not be exhibiting a desire for complexity. Instead, users are anxious about predicting their future needs. The black/white distinction of “choosing complexity over simplicity” seems too blunt an instrument to describe the behavior we see from users. Schwartz’ theory suggests that people in this type of situation don’t know enough about the features of a product or their own needs. The result is that users avoid making a trade-off by choosing the one that looks like it has more features.

What Does This Mean For Designers?

What does this mean for your design team? Certainly, following Norman’s conclusion that people choose complex over simple would suggest that teams strive for complex designs with many features. It may not be right aesthetically, but it is better for the bottom line. Norman states it plainly: “the truth is, simplicity does not sell.”

But Schwartz’ description of trade-offs suggests a different approach. Instead of focusing on adding features, design teams should focus on helping users find out what they really need before they purchase. When design teams understand that buyers want to avoid trade-offs, they can use this insight to their advantage.

By understanding what users really need, design teams will prevent users from falling into the trap of assuming that complexity equals capability. The trick is to communicate to your customers before they purchase. Designers (and this includes copy writers!) must communicate that a product contains all of the features users need (or will need), while also communicating that each of those necessary features is simple to use. This will prevent users from worrying about trade-offs and provide people with the confidence that they’re choosing the right product.

Simplicity Reaches Beyond the Interface

Simplicity isn’t a bad design goal; complexity isn’t a good one. As Schwartz’ insight into user behavior suggests, simplicity goes beyond the interface of the product to the decision process surrounding it. We want simple decisions as much as simple products.

In other words, the experience of buying a product is more than just how the product looks. The larger process of buying, trying out, reading the box, and talking to the salesperson also comes into play. Unfortunately, in our world of cheap, hastily designed, me-too products most of these other issues aren’t considered. Design teams that take advantage of these influence points will move purchasers away from a superficial choice based on the way the product looks and help them answer the question, “Is this product right for me?”

When the elegant balance of being and communicating simplicity is achieved, Leonardo once again proves his genius. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

About the Author

Joshua Porter is the brains behind the popular design blog,, and wrote the book Designing for the Social Web. Having worked as a Research Consultant at User Interface Engineering for five years, he started Bokardo Design in 2007, where he focuses exclusively on social web applications. His expertise on designing social experiences is sought by companies around the world.

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