Define what simplicity means

by on July 31, 2010
in design

Over the years that I’ve been designing things, there has always been endless discussion about delivering simple, easy-to-use, approachable, and consumable products. Interestingly for all of the talk, it is very rare for companies to actually deliver on the promise of simplicity. Everyone always seems to start out with the best of intentions, with idealistic motives, and then in the end delivers an intimidating, complicated, confusing, bloated product; leveraging documentation in some form or another to help guide the customer through the labyrinth.

Truthfully, the picture isn’t as bleak as I’ve painted here. There are a few companies here and there that deliver simple products with a high degree of consistency (Apple, and Google come to mind.) And fortunately almost everyone (regardless of discipline, background, or hierarchy) seems to agree that delivering products that actual non-technical human beings can use is a good idea. There is very rarely any disagreement that simplicity as a goal is important, relevant, and critical to the success of a product within the marketplace.

So the question remains… why is this so hard to do? Why are there so few simple products in the world? Why is simplicity so elusive? Why is it so difficult to deliver a simple, easy-to-use, easy-to-understand product? Realizing the significance of simplicity coupled with its elusiveness and having found what I believe is the answer, I feel as though I’ve unearthed one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’ so please read on.

The answer is quite simple. ‘Define and agree on what simplicity means.’ Sure sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Simplicity as a principle is completely subjective. Everyone has a different idea of what ‘is simple’, and what ‘isn’t simple’. So in looking for a common definition I turned to the dictionary. Unfortunately the explanations found there couldn’t be more complex. I found over 29 different definitions for ‘simple’.

From there I started synthesizing the explanations into patterns, into groups. Almost all of the examples talk about what simple ‘is not’, what it ‘isn’t doing’, what it ‘isn’t being’, what it ‘isn’t’. So by definition ‘simplicity’ is the nature of not being, not doing, it is the nature of non-action; it is the simple act of saying no. This discovery was completely revolutionary for me for the following reason. Simplicity is about what you don’t create, rather than what you do create. Simplicity is about not doing. It’s about your eraser, not your pencil. It is by definition reductive thinking.

Here is my best attempt at a simple definition:

Simple (adjective)

  1. Easy to understand and use.
  2. Not elaborate, ornate, artificial, or complicated.
  3. Occurring or considered alone; mere; bare.

So to recap, if your goal is to deliver something simple, you have to be very direct and clear about what simplicity means, how this principle will be used to make decisions, and most importantly what the agreement is/means. Simplicity is about completely agreeing on what you are doing, as well as what you are not doing, form the beginning without backsliding. In order to deliver on the promise of simplicity you fundamentally have to do less. This means that all of the people involved have to be ok with doing less. This can be quite unintuitive and contradictory to the nature of creative professionals who are in some form always tinkering on a subconscious level. Simplicity means discipline, agreement, and focused execution.

I’ve outlined some steps teams might employ to help deliver on the noble promise of simplicity:

  1. Agree on a common definition for what ‘simplicity’ means.
  2. Agree upon how decisions of what-to-do, or more importantly, what not-to-do will be made relative to the common definition.
  3. Make the decisions up front.
  4. Stick to the plan. Do not backslide.