Simplicity & Complexity
In any type of design there can be a strong desire for simplicity. From computers to furniture to houses to entire cities, it is natural to desire simplicity in our lives. The act of simplifying, however, will always be constrained by the complexity of the task at hand. The complexity of any task can be absorbed by a well designed tool. Described in Donald Norman's Living with Complexity, if one seeks to simplify a user's experience while maintaining good design principles, the complexity within a system, object, or tool must increase.
In the eyes of consumers looking to purchase computers, Apple products may be the unofficial leader for simplifying technology. A closer look at an Apple notebook reveals how the appearance of simplicity can hide something quite complex. Not only are the parts of an Apple notebook incredibly complex on the inside, the software that allows the user to interact with the machine is full of intricate automation and processes the user is, most often, unaware of. Most would agree with Norman that "to make our lives easier, we need more powerful, more complex tools" (Page 46). Apple's tools make our lives easier.
For tools to make life easier, they can either do things for us completely or allow less effort to accomplish our goals. Some tools make tasks even more difficult—these are poorly designed tools. A well designed tool can be described by a number of characteristics, a great place to start is reviewing Dieter Rams' Ten Principles for Good Design. Rams asks designers to go "back to simplicity," because "good design is as little design as possible" as long as "the usefulness of a product" is retained. Each of Rams' principles relate to simplicity in some fashion, while maintaining that the usefulness of an object is not to be lost in the act of simplifying it.
good design is as little design as possible
In an attempt to create an easy to use tool, the function of an object is often sacrificed—a victim of poor design. The other difficulty is making an object function as intended without it becoming a mystery to its user. The balancing act of simplicity and complexity has always been upon us, but good design can tip the scales towards simplicity. To simplify a very complex task, it might first seem that functions must be lost—not always so. A well designed tool can accomplish complex tasks for its user, so long as those tasks are acceptably executed. As Norman argues, "the real complexity does not lie in the tools, but in the task" (Page 45). The key is that complexity can be minimized and absorbed by a tool. Most adults can open a can using a can opener, so long as they are content with its circular cut. The complexity of opening a can in a useful way, which is rather complex without any tools, is much easier with the proper tool. Tools are only useful in complex situations if they can accomplish the specific task at hand, otherwise task complexity remains and the functionality of a tool is lost.
Norman finds that "the total complexity of a system is constant" (Page 46). In the case of a can opener, the complexity of the task was distributed to the tool. In the case of the Apple notebook, often described as easy to use, designers also attempt to distribute as much complexity from tasks, such as emailing friends and sifting through photographs, to the tools they create. If a system is not designed to absorb complexity, the usability can diminish; if a system absorbs desired complexity, usability can diminish as well. Balance remains a must. One might find a can opener limiting if they wanted to cut smaller circles in their can; one might also find an Apple notebook limiting if they wanted to modify it's inside parts or install certain software.
A complete design approach includes finding the right balance between user control and the simplification of tasks—all while maintaining function. Seeking simplicity in tools that are to perform a number of tasks will result in an increase of its internal complexity. An Apple notebook computer's internal complexity is nearly incomprehensible to most, yet it remains an approachable piece of equipment that performs tasks quite well compared to it's peers. Elements of complete design can be spotted in the Apple notebook. Apple designers have found a strong balance of functionality, user control, and simplification of tasks.
Typical mechanical can openers have survived the test of time; automatic have not. An automatic can opener is suppose to remove even more complexity from opening the can, but, in reality, most create even more complexity for the user. The automatic can opener is scary: people are afraid of an automatic blade sharp enough to slice metal; they are also unwilling to read how it operates and why they need not fear such devices. An automatic can opener is a great idea, but poor design attempts have led to confusion and complexity surrounding such devices. When simplifying a process, an elaborate interface must not be born.
Achieving simplicity is for the designer to manage
Despite not yet having finished reading Norman's Living with Complexity, it has already helped shape my design approach—the struggle of any design now has understanding. Achieving simplicity is for the designer to manage. A tool can be created with a number of options and adjustments and tweaks, but a designer must find ways to combine and perhaps automate in ways that do not alter functionality or hinder user control, only paving a pathway to clean interface. I strongly recommend reading Living with Complexity for it's entire message, as what I have touched on is only a portion of it.
Posted June 7th, 2011.