Choice: the Enemy of Simplicity

Posted on September 25, 2013
Updated October 1, 2019

The challenge in delivering simplicity is, marketing wants to bring more functionality to bear, engineering wants to bring more options to bear– and all of that just adds to the confusion and clutter. That’s when printing a document becomes confounded with all these buttons and fields and tabs.

Don Lindsay

Simplicity in consumer software shouldn’t be an option. It should be the default.

There is nothing on the market that is easy to use all of the time. Unfortunately for those that are _mostly_ simple, small blemishes tarnish whole experiences so that otherwise beautiful, elegant and simple devices are used with a niggling element of trepidation.

Not everyone needs choices. In a simpler world the needs of the majority can be catered for without options. As much as can be automatic would be. The minority with particular needs and preferences can dig for them.

It’s about predicting needs and designing around them. People have many needs. But having one app for all of them – say, a MS Word, Scrivener, Photoshop or Logic Studio – makes for an app as just complicated as it is powerful.

If your need is simply getting words onto a screen, you’re just as well served by a text editor like iA Writer, a text editor with literally no options (even for formatting, except via markdown). I prefer to write when I write (as opposed to worrying about formatting), so iA Writer suits me. Sure, others will be alienated by the lack of options, but their needs will be catered for elsewhere, such as Word or Scrivener (highly recommend the latter for all specific writing tasks such as screenplays or manuscripts).

Mobile as a catalyst for simplicity

The beauty of the today’s mobile apps is that many of them embrace the limitations of the devices they run on, and really drilled into the basic operations of a specific task. You also do less at once, but with greater ease. You don’t need to load up Photoshop to add text to a picture, or to put a few pictures side by side. A plethora of task-oriented apps stand at the ready.

Learning from the pleasure of many mobile experiences, desktop apps are finding the same elegance. Courier (Realmac software – leaders in desktop simplicity) helps upload files to common services via an envelope-delivery themed interface that even tracks the files visually across the globe to their server. A host of companies focussed on solving simple problems simply are on the rise.

Fonts are even becoming larger, encouraging more relaxed use. Less time is spent leaning in, squinting in concentration. Instead, we can sit back comfortably and interact with our tools more contemplatively. Visuals are becoming simpler. Gradients and shadows less prominent, more white space. The focus is less on making use of screen “real estate” (a very technical consideration), and onto other things.

But why do we still have such a degree of complication?

Despite positive trends, we have a lingering mindset that features mean value. We’re only just learning that we don’t need to do more things, instead we need to do the things we need to do, better. We’re still waiting for the day tools will get out of the way.

Why? Here are some possible reasons I’ve come up with.

We’re not designing for everyday people. For someone comfortable with complexity it’s difficult to know how much choice and function is too much. It’s not that less technical folks are less capable, it’s that they just want to get things done. For them, it’s not about the tool, it’s about their life; their time; their friends and making all of the above run smoothly. Technology needs to move further towards catering to actual people doing actual things.

Of course the market might sometimes indicate a demand for complexity, due to the prevalence of anti-users: people who buy devices not to get things done, but to revel in the power and performance of the device; to simply have the device and all it can do at their fingertips (and that’s that). What share of the market such folks are, I’m not sure, but they certainly keep devices skewed to their tastes.

Sometimes the past is haunting us. Such as multipe ways to shut down a computer. On this one, you can press the power button or go Taskmenu > Apple > Shutdown, and choose between Restart, Sleep and Shut Down. Or you can just close the lid. Restarting is kind of a geeky thing to need – it could be buried. Shutting down, similarly. Most users, most of the time, would be happy with sleeping. But closing the lid with things open feels like such a violent way to treat the machine. Now to a technical person, this seems like a total non-issue. Of course we need all these options. But to an average user, the choice is confusing; and the methods are time consuming.

Also, sometimes things are made complicated because the provider needs to protect themselves. If less could go wrong, more choices could be automatic. The provider needs to shift the onus onto the individual, via a choice. Facebook has handled this well. There are a huge number of choices you can make to exert a fine degree of control over what Facebook shares with who, and who can see what. You’re made aware of your choice, but aren’t forced to choose. Resultantly you feel respected, but not overwhelmed.

But wait! Even more can prevent ease of use. As well as being forced to present choices, and not understand how simple most people need things to be, What also happens is that true simplicity gets emulated by people who mistake the ingenuity of simplicity for ideological minimalism. Thus they remove functionality from apps that need it. The results are clean, but aggravatingly confusing interfaces. You’re sitting there, looking for a button you know should be right there but isn’t, trying to stop yourself from doing something rash and expensive to your computer. I know you’ve been there.

It all comes from an absence of user-centricity, from the very first conceptual sparks through design and development (a tandem process these days), it needs to remain crystal clear who they are helping to accomplish what. Questions such as why the need to do something, are all helpful. Thankfully, even the technically adept are embracing the field of user-experience design.

I can’t stress enough that even one unnecessary choice will reduce the trust of a user in your service and diminish the joy of their experience, and ultimately, the usefulness/success of the product or service.

What’s the solution? Design!