Essays & Articles
Simplicity Is Highly Overrated
Column written for Interactions, volume 14, issue 3. © CACM, 2007. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included.
Comment: This is one of the most misunderstood of all my columns. So after you finish, read the “Addendum” before you Slashdot or otherwise flame me. Then, if you still disagree, go right ahead and object. I don’t mind criticism. I don’t mind being wrong — that’s how I learn. But it is painful to be misunderstood.
“Why can’t products be simpler?” cries the reviewer in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the local newspaper. “We want simplicity” cry the people befuddled by all the features of their latest whatever. Do they really mean it? No.
But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.
I recently toured a department store in South Korea. Visiting department stores and the local markets is one of my favorite pastimes whenever I visit a country new to me, the better to get to know the local culture. Foods differ, clothes differ, and in the past, appliances differed: appliances, kitchen utensils, gardening tools, and shop tools.
I found the traditional “white goods” most interesting: Refrigerators and washing machines. The store obviously had the Korean companies LG and Samsung, but also GE, Braun, and Philips. The Korean products seemed more complex than the non-Korean ones, even though the specifications and prices were essentially identical. “Why?” I asked my two guides, both of whom were usability professionals. “Because Koreans like things to look complex,” they responded. It is a symbol: it shows their status.
But while at the store, I marveled at the advance complexities of all appliances, especially ones that once upon a time were quite simple: for example, toasters, refrigerators, and coffee makers, all of which had multiple control dials, multiple LCD displays, and a complexity that defied description.
Once upon a time, a toaster had one knob to control how much the bread was to be toasted and that was all. A simple lever lowered the bread and started the operation. Toasters cost around $20. 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?
After touring the store my two friendly guides and I stopped outside to where two new automobiles were on display: two brand new Korean SUVs. Complexity again. I’m old enough to remember when a steering wheel was just a steering wheel, the rear view mirror just a mirror. These steering wheels were also complex control structures with multiple buttons and controls including two sets of loudness controls, one for music and one for the telephone (and I’m not even mentioning the multiple stalks on the steering column). The rear view mirror had two controls, one to illuminate the compass the other simply labeled “mirror,” which lit a small red light when depressed. A rear view mirror with an on-off switch? The salesperson didn’t know what it did either.
Why such expensive toasters? Why all the buttons and controls on steering wheels and rear-view mirrors? Because they appear to add features that people want to have. They make a difference at the time of sale, which is when it matters most.
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.
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.
The complex expensive toaster? I bet it sells well.
What really puzzles me, though, is that when a manufacturer figures out how to automate an otherwise mysterious operation, I would expect the resulting device to be simpler. Nope. Here is an example.
Siemens recently released a washing machine that, to quote their website, “is equipped with smart sensors that recognize how much laundry is in the drum, what kind of textiles the laundry load comprises, and if it is heavily or lightly soiled. Users only have to choose one of two program settings: hot and colored wash, or easy-to-clean fabrics. The machine takes care of the rest.”
Hurrah, I said, now the entire wash can be automatic, so there need be only two controls: one to chose between “hot and colored wash” and “easy-to-clean fabrics,” the other to start the machine. Nope, this washer had even more controls and buttons than the non-automatic one. “Why even more controls? I asked my contact at Siemens, “when you could make this machines with only one or two?”.
“Are you one of those people who wants to give up control, who thinks less is better?” asked this usability expert. “Don’t you want to be in control?”
Strange answer. Why the automation if it isn’t to be trusted? And, yes, actually I am one of those bizarre people who think that less is better.
It appears that marketing won the day. And I suspect marketing was right. Would you pay more money for a washing machine with less controls? In the abstract, maybe. At the store? Probably not.
Notice the question: “pay more money for a washing machine with less controls.” An early reviewer of this paper flagged the sentence as an error: “Didn’t you mean ‘less money’?” the reviewer asked? That question makes my point precisely. If a company spent more money to design and build an appliance that worked so well, so automatically, that all it needed was an on-off switch, people would reject it. “This simple looking thing costs more?” They would complain. “What is that company thinking of? I’ll buy the cheaper one with all those extra features – after all, it’s better, right? And I save money.”
Marketing rules – as it should, for a company that ignores marketing is a company soon out of business. Marketing experts know that purchase decisions are influenced by feature lists, even if the buyers realize they will probably never use most of the features. Even if the features confuse more than they help.
Yes, we want simplicity, but we don’t want to give up any of those cool features. Simplicity is highly overrated.
Don Norman wears many hats, including co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, Professor at Northwestern University, and author, his latest book being Emotional Design. He lives at www.jnd.org.
I’m a champion of elegance, simplicity, and ease of use. But, as a business person, I also know that companies have to make money, which means they have to deliver the products that their customers want, not the products they believe they should want. And the truth is, simplicity does not sell. Why?
One of my correspondents posed the question with great clarity:
After reading “simplicity is highly overrated,” one thing seems to puzzle me. Do you mean that features packed system cannot have a simplistic interface? Or do you mean that people are not willing to pay for a system with same number of features because it appears to have less manipulable things on its interface, and hence looks less capable than some other intimidating-looking complex machine?
The answer is the latter: people are not willing to pay for a system that looks simpler because it looks less capable. Hence the fully automatic system that still contains lots of buttons and knobs. Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software has an eloquent description of the problem, and why he too discovered that adding apparent complexity is necessary. See his blog:
A few others have chimed in to support the notion that complex products look more powerful. One gave an example from Iran:
I find this exaggerated beyond proportion whenever I go to Iran. In the consumer electronics bazaars over there, the perception of luxury / sophistication / desirability goes hand in hand with more features (sometimes useless inaccessible features in the case of cellphones / networks) and anything less/ perfectly usable and functional whether cheaper or more expensive is by default considered far inferior.
In my article I used a Korean example. As a result, many of my readers seem to think I wrote the entire article based upon this one experience. Some seemed to think this was my first and only trip to a foreign (or Asian) country. Amazing. I wrote the article after decades of experience in design, especially of consumer products. The arguments apply universally. Do I travel? Hah. Over 140,000 airline miles in 2006 alone. Close to 2 million documented airline miles total.
Do we have to go to Korea or Iran to find this tendency? Nope. I have experienced this in the United States. Here is one example. I am helping a company design an entirely new approach to one of their standard products. It looks simple. During a user test, one person said that he really liked it, but it was too bad he wouldn’t use it. “Why not?” we asked. “Because it isn’t powerful enough for my particular problem,” he replied. “Try it,” we suggested, “we would like to see where it fails so we can make it better.” Well, it didn’t fail. it handled his problem just fine. Looking simple was the culprit. if it looks simple, he seemed to think, it must not be powerful.
Many of the complaints sent to me provided examples of specific difficulties with poorly designed, complex devices. Hey, I am not advocating bad design. I am simply pointing out a fact of life: purchasers, on the whole, prefer more powerful devices to less powerful ones. They equate the apparent simplicity of the controls with lack of power: complexity with power. This doesn’t mean everyone. it does mean the majority, however, and this is who the marketing specialists of a company target. Quite appropriately, in my opinion.
One person truly misunderstood because he advocated hiding the extra controls, thus preserving the apparent simplicity. Sorry: it is the apparent complexity that drives the sale. And yes, it is the same complexity that frustrates those same people later on. But by then, it is too late: they have already purchased the product.
Many correspondents understood this, but presented very sensible, very logical arguments as to why this should not be true. Logic and reason, I have to keep explaining, are wonderful virtues, but they are irrelevant in describing human behavior. Trying to prove a point through intelligent, reasonable argumentation is what I call the “engineer’s fallacy.” (Also, the economist’s fallacy.”) We have to design for the way people really behave, not as engineers or economists would prefer them to behave.
Logic is not the way to answer these issues: human behavior is the key. Avoid the engineer’s and economist’s fallacy: don’t reason your way to a solution — observe real people. We have to take human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.
So, of course I am in favor of good design and attractive products. Easy to use products. But when it comes time to purchase, people tend to go for the more powerful products, and they judge the power by the apparent complexity of the controls. If that is what people use as a purchasing choice, we must provide it for them. While making the actual complexity low, the real simplicity high. That’s an exciting design challenge: make it look powerful while also making it easy to use. And attractive. And affordable. And functional. And environmentally appropriate. Accessible to all.
That’s why I like design: it presents wonderful challenges.
And now read the latest squabble: Why is 37signals so arrogant?