QOTD: Simplicity

Paul Kedrosky in Business 2.0:

The current obsession with simplicity beats making products stupidly complex. But it's built on at least one false premise, that less is more. More is more, and it always has been and always will be. Good products can and should be feature-rich, laden with information and easy to use. [Business 2.0 April 2006]
Related entries:

Comments: 2

Mar 27, 2006
Andy Havens

In the history of design (as it relates to marketing in the US, at any rate), it's interesting to note that an obsession with simplicity has, in some cases, been very purposefully driven into the market by manufacturers and advertisers, rather than being derived from the market due to any particular "call for simplicity" from the public. Why? Because simple is often cheaper.

Around WWII, for example, the very simple, smooth, no-frills, "edgeless," designs typical of various Modern Art movements were copied and, essentially, thrust upon the American buying public as the "Art Deco" and "Arte Moderne" movements as "stylish" by an increasingly "geared up" retail, middle-class production economy.

Previously popular (and still, in many cases, at the time, in vogue) styles of art and design -- Arte Nouvueau, for example -- were still quite lovely, expressive and suited to the design of all kinds of household items. But due to the detail levels required by those styles, they were tougher to manufacture in the enormous quantities starting to get pumped out. So... along comes Arte Modern Art, with it's simple curves and lack of frills... and industrial designers (and their marketing masters) jumped all over it and advertised it and pushed it. One reason? Because it was cheaper and easier to set up tool-and-die for teapots, stoves, fridges, etc., when you don't have so many angles, bevels and curlycues. But to sell "simple things," you must first sell "simple."

I'm not saying that this is the case with all attempts to remove "frills" or "features" or to simplify complex products or services. And I'm certainly not saying that feature-creep is good. But whenever someone wants to take something away from an equation, I distrust the answer, "Because it's in your best interests, Andy," without some really solid evidence. It may be. But, often, it's just as much a benefit for the taker-er as the take-ee.

Mar 28, 2006
Paul Houle

I think the main failing of complicated search interfaces is that, often, the default settings are restrictive and bring up little content. People try a search, get nothing, and assume that this is "just another broken search box on a web site."

arXiv.org, for instance, used to have a search feature that made people select every subject area they wanted to search. If people didn't select enough subject areas, they got nothing. Now there is a search on the front page that searches everything.

"Advanced search" options require people to understand a lot about a collection before they do searching. A better approach, rarely done, is to give people options for narrowing down a search once they've made it. This educates users about the collection rather than requiring them to have ESP: ebay and the NCSU catalog are good examples.

The popularity of 'advanced search', I think, is a matter of technological limitations over user's needs. Restricting what gets searched ahead of time reduces load on the server -- it costs a lot computationally to do any kind of summary on 10,000+ results. (Or it requires special index structures to pull out top-ranking documents first.)