Complex simplicity

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful”John Maeda

I don’t know about you, but I yearn for the day when I’m not faced by a restaurant sized menu when I go to a coffee shop.  Actually, I yearn more for a day when Costa/Starbucks et al can actually make a decent coffee and not burn the beans, but that’s something for another day.

We now live in a time when personalisation of everything is the norm, meaning business must cater for thousands of variations.

This got me thinking about simplicity and the fact that with immense choice come immense possibilities and therefore decisions – sometimes to the point of paralysis and inertia.  Do you remember Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous line “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”? This is a great example of complicating a simple phrase – ‘There are things we know and there are things we don’t”.  This, I think is the result of our perception that more is better or more insightful or more complete.

Businesses believe that customers value this essence of ‘more’ meaning that if a product has 100 features, your next iteration better have 101 features otherwise it will fail.  So more and more complicated products are created with more and more features that will never be used (for example, how many times have I used the compass on my iPhone?  A grand total of zero.).  Very few things are about making things simpler – the iPod and Google being two of a small number of exceptions.

The worry is that this focus on something bigger and better means we sometime lose sight of what the real issue to tackle is and how simple a solution may be.

Take for example some of the work that Vodafone have done in Africa. With its remote regions and regular outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, etc. Now, faced with this problem most companies would have created a complicated database with various communication points.  What Vodafone did was allow remote areas to update their stock levels of medicine using SMS, meaning that if there was an outbreak in a certain area, overstocked areas could then help.  This has significantly reduced the number of outbreaks and saved thousands of lives.  And all without re-inventing the wheel.

But simplicity doesn’t have to mean simple.  Simplicity is merely the perception that something’s simple from a user perspective.  This talk from David McCandless illustrates this point beautifully.

The more complex the thing you turn into something simple the more valuable it becomes. I’m currently reading John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity in an effort try to understand when and how you should deconstruct something to make it simple… whilst drinking my double expresso.

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