“Give us simplicity, so we can ignore you.”

By Deane Barker on October 10, 2010

Simplicity Is Highly Overrated: This has been making the rounds for a while, but I just got around to reading it.  Don Norman – principle of The Nielsen-Norman Group and author of Emotional Design and The Design of Everyday Things – pulls back the curtain on feature bloat.  His point is best summed up in the last paragraph of the addendum:

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.

The entire essay is brilliant, and perhaps a little sad.  Essentially he’s saying that you have to cater to the customers stupidity, in a way.  You have to design something to meet their needs, and one of their needs is an over-inflated sense of self-importance.  (Perhaps?  Maybe I’m misunderstanding it.)

In the end, though, making the sale requires features.  Everyone says “I need this to be simple,” but, in the content management space, I have seen far, far more sales lost to lack of features than to over-complication.  CMS sales demos are often reality-free zones where customers get caught up in the glamour of stuff they will never use.  (See “Why WEM Worries Me” from last month.)

It’s cruel, really – companies are told over and over that “we want simple CMS.”  Yet, when this is built, no one buys it because it doesn’t have enough features.  Not only do they not buy it, they actively disdain it and are perhaps even a little insulted by its arrogance in thinking something that simple could handle their sophisticated needs.  (Even if it could.)

As a bonus to all this, Norman got into a streetfight with the guys over at 37signals about this.  They, of course, believe in ruthlessly stripping away features.  They took exception, and Norman proceeds to eviscerate them (rightly or wrongly):

Understanding the true needs of customers is essential for business success. Making sure the product is elegant, functional and understandable is also essential. The disdain for customers shown by Hansson of 37signals is an arrogance bound to fail. As long as 37signals is a hobby, where programmers code for themselves, it may very well succeed as a small enterprise with its current size of 10 employees.

So, what of 37signals?  Are they an exception?  They keep things simple, but are wildly popular, so Norman is wrong, right?

Well, you need to keep it in perspective.  37signals is very visible in the creative community, and very beloved, but I think their relative popularity is vastly over-estimated.  If you compared users of Basecamp to users of Microsoft Project you would come to understand in a hurry where the pecking order actually is.

(Despite going the very first seminar on how they built it, Blend does not use Basecamp because we just couldn’t get it to work for us.  Perhaps we’re deluded of our importance, but we kept hitting functional walls we couldn’t get around, and it came down to changing our process to fit, and we just didn’t want to do this.  Also, this was many years ago, so it’s quite possible the product has changed enough since then where it would work fine now.)

I think Basecamp is perfect for a certain type of project, but in terms of total users of project management software, its market share is very, very small.  Perhaps this market share represents the enlightened masses, and all the Project drones are just going what their overlords tell them to do, but in the end, people are conditioned to accept what they know.  And Project has enough bells and whistles that this is what they’ve come to expect.

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Comments

  1. The argument over simple isn’t clear cut at all. Though at the application layer one thing that seems to work well is a relatively simple core that can be extended via plugins. For instance most web browsers are fairly simple applications. Yet they are also immensely popular. And for those that need more than the basics that most browsers ship with plugins fill in the gap.

  2. Fascinating. Simplicity of use vs. perceived feature list.

    On one hand I want to scream in defense of simplicity. Just because something is easy and intuitive to use doesn’t mean it can’t be a powerful tool. If no one makes the call to trim excessive features, you end up with an unfocused, bloated, expensive and ineffective final product. Besides, isn’t a set of features you can actually use better than any number of features you can’t make sense of?

    On the other hand, I am guilty of comparing feature lists at the time of purchase.

    This makes me wonder, if complex equates to better for most people, how can you differentiate between “fully featured complexity” and “poorly thought out complexity?”

  3. Wow did you just perfectly describe the CMS being used by our school system. It’s soooo simple to use that no one uses it because you can’t do anything with it. Making it even worse, the CMS was written in CF. I use to write alot of ColdFusion yet I can’t make use of even the most simplistic features. This drives me nuts. It also won’t accept javascript except for Hello World. So I am now forced to learn some flash in order to get some features CF or even PHP would give me w/o trying.

    Sorry but I have yet to use a CMS that all users like and use.

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