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Simplicity vs. Features: A False Dichotomy?

By Josh Catone

All other things being equal, the simplest solution is probably the best. That’s the basic understanding of what Ockham’s razor tells us, an adage named for 14th century English logician, William of Ockham. In other words: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Ockham’s razor as it informs design decisions in software and web application development can perhaps be best embodied by the 37signals Getting Real approach, which counsels developers to underdo the competition. “Do less than your competitors to beat them,” says the company in their book Getting Real. “Instead of oneupping, try one-downing. Instead of outdoing, try underdoing.”

37signals explains that, among other things, less means “less features” and “less options/preferences.” The idea is that simplicity will yield technology that is easier to use and more elegant. But Northwestern Professor and former Apple Vice President Don Norman disagrees. Writing for the Association for Computer Machinery’s Interactions magazine, Norman argues that simplicity is not the answer and does not necessarily lead to better design.

“Simplicity is not the goal. We do not wish to give up the power and flexibility of our technologies,” writes Norman. “The garage door opener may be simple, but it hardly does anything. If my cellphone only had one button it certainly would be simple, but, umm, all I could do would be to turn it on or off: I wouldn’t be able to make a phone call.”

People actually want more features and functionality. They also want ease of use, he says, but there is a popular false dichotomy that equates simplicity with ease of use, and features with capability. Norman lays out the following, which he says is an implicit assumption:

  • Features ==> Capability
  • Simplicity ==> Ease of use

“These two statements translate into simple logic,” says Norman. “Everyone wants more capability, so therefore they want more features. Everyone wants ease of use, so therefore they want simplicity.” But Norman argues that this is false logic. “The arrow goes left to right: this says nothing about the right to left direction. So extra capability does not require more features. Similarly, ease of use does not require simplicity.”

People very likely do want more capability and easier to use products, but to deliver those things doesn’t require that designers succumb to feature creep or make simplicity a design rule. Norman lays out some design rules to create better products that are easier to use but don’t sacrifice capability in the name of simplicity.

  • Modularization – Break up big, complicated tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.
  • Mapping – The relationship between actions and the results they bring about should be clear.
  • Cohesive conceptual models – People should understand what they’re supposed to do, what doing it makes happen, and what’s expected of them. “See any Apple product,” says Norman.

“The argument is not between adding features and simplicity, between adding capability and usability,” Norman writes. “The real issue is about design: designing things that have the power required for the job while maintaining understandability, the feeling of control, and the pleasure of accomplishment.”

  • orokusaki

    I strongly agree with 37signals. Using Highrise CRM, I’ve learned that if you take out all of the extraneous activities involved in using a more complicated software, you find yourself actually doing more. It falls into the same concept of Execution over Ideas. You may have 3 times more abilities, but you really don’t if simplicity doesn’t exist to allow you to complete them.

    This exists in many aspects of life. If it wasn’t true, people would not spend countless hours playing Fantastic Contraption, which consists of a few simple tools when there are games out there that practically reproduce life digitally, and at an affordable price. People love to think, but not when they don’t have to.

  • Miles

    Don Norman worked at Apple from 1995 to 1998, which means he was likely part of the problem at Apple before Steve Jobs regained the helm.

    I’ve seen Apple’s success sans Don Norman as VP. I’ve seen 37 Signal’s success. So… why am I supposed to listen to you?

  • Tim

    HA! “See any Apple product,” says Norman. OSX fails the very thing he is trying to get across “People should understand what they’re supposed to do, what doing it makes happen, and what’s expected of them”. I’ve seen many an accomplished IT person huddled in the corner while trying to figure out how to do simple things like setup wireless network connections etc all because they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. I still to this day don’t understand why dropping those bundle files onto your desktop installs the app. How is that intuitive?

    Design needs to be taken in balance with the social norm which Norman has conveniently ignored, but the 37signals guys haven’t. So long as your design still requires people to use your gizmo in the manner in which people are acustomed, THEN your design is still intuitive. If you are changing the way things are normally done, then your design also needs to serve the dual purpose of educating your audience at the same time. Something which I think OSX does very badly. I should point out that Windows doesn’t do it very well either, but considering it has established the way people expect things to work, they get the education point by sheer numbers. The 37signals approach simply means only give users the features they need, not what they MIGHT need someday. Satisfy 99% of people 99% of the time through a standardised approach and you’ve got a hit. Don’t give them 2 ways of solving the same problem with the same outcome.

  • Tim

    @Miles, did Norman have anything to do with their product design at the time? Product design and bad company practise can be attributed to different people. Apple suffered more from a bad company image and management rather than product design. Jobs simply make it look better.

  • markus

    There is one problem with the analogy of cell phones.

    I know that many many many people complained that you can do MORE than phone others with it.

    I can agree with them. A cell phone should only be used to phone, not for all the other fancy stuff that exists out there. I dont want to use the internet with such a mini-device. But the big corporations think there was big money in it, so they decided to do it.

    Thus the whole analogy in the above article is totally flawed.

  • CaseyA.

    You definitely have a point. I work for an ecommerce solutions company. It is the challenge of finding that delicate balance of simplicity and capability. You summed it up very well. It’s employing those three strong points- actions that narrow down to clear results which trigger immediate action.

  • Stevie D

    There are some good points in there, but I think that when it comes to web design, they need a bit more interrogation.

    There is no bigger success story on the internet than Google – a chain of sites that are both simple to use (when only doing simple things) and extremely capable (when you don’t mind using a more complicated interface).

    That is the ultimate goal – offering visitors precisely the level of sophistication they need. Anyone who wants to carry out a simple, straight-forward and commonly-used task should be able to carry it out without any unnecessary distractions or unwanted features getting in the way.

    For some sites, there will be a need/demand to offer more advanced features and capabilities. That’s great, and the more you enable people to do on your website, the more likely they are to hang around, to come back another time and to spread the word. But it should never get in the way of the most commonly-done simple tasks.

  • ShadyAidy

    If my cellphone only had one button it certainly would be simple, but, umm, all I could do would be to turn it on or off: I wouldn’t be able to make a phone call.

    This is so disingenuous that I nearly laughed out loud. I must’ve missed the part where 37signals said that a car had to accelerate, steer and stop using a single control, or a printing press had to have only had one letter available for marking up words.

    Arguably, having one button on a cell phone, you could still tap out long SMS’s or dial numbers – how do you think Stephen Hawking holds a conversation? – but it would be tedious, so it actaully be less simple than having, oh, I don’t know, having 0-9 keys and a dial / hang-up button, for example.

    The average (non geek / gadget obsessed) client we develop systems for require two things from the products they buy from us:

    1) That it is as simple as possible, but no less than required,
    2) That it is as sophisticated as possible, but no more than required.

    Mr. Norman, you stand in the way of good design, and without your hindrance Microsoft *might* have less of a monopoly than they do today.

  • Don Norman
  • http://www.mikeborozdin.com/ Mike Borozdin

    I agree with the point that people prefer simply thing, but I think that it is debatable if people actually want more feautures and functionality. For instance, I don’t want my garage door to do anything besides being opened or closed, I don’t need it to make coffee.

    How many functions of you mobile phone are you actually using? I hardly use it for anything, but for placing and receiving calls and text messages.

    Besides, this sound strange to me:

    Modularization – Break up big, complicated tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.

    I mean, do they suggest that instead of pressing only one button, I have to press 5 buttons, simply because the task appears to be too complex? In fact, I don’t think I need to know how the task is performed, I just need the result.

  • sirk

    37signals is right to a degree, but what Prof. Norman says is also true. The key is in the correct interpretation of what Ockham’s razor says. There are many different interpretations and Ockham and others before and after have stated it in different ways but the basic principle is “Don’t do more than you have to.” Or as Einstein put it “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    Just for the record, Norman didn’t specifically cite 37signals in his post — making the connection there was my take on things. They both make valid points… and actually both might actually be expressing the same philosophy in different ways.

  • Anonymous

    Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.
    Albert Einstein, (attributed)
    US (German-born) physicist (1879 – 1955)

  • design

    Why is there a question mark after this title? Of course it’s a false dichotomy. But underneath that false dichotomy is a truth that it is easier to make fewer features simple. Lacking the skill to make a more featureful system simple, it sometimes behooves designers to consider the pair as participating in a tradeoff.

  • http://www.yellowshoe.com.au/ markbrown4

    Interesting post – thanks!

    I agree with this:

    People actually want more features and functionality. They also want ease of use, he says, but there is a popular false dichotomy that equates simplicity with ease of use, and features with capability. Norman lays out the following, which he says is an implicit assumption:

    * Features ==> Capability
    * Simplicity ==> Ease of use

    Users do want features. Making an application or UI as dumb as it possibly can be doesn’t create an exiting app with a wow factor that makes something sellable.

    Make a sexy app that has the features that the users want, break them up into manageable pieces if there are too many.

  • huwaw69

    I also agree with this:

    People actually want more features and functionality. They also want ease of use, he says, but there is a popular false dichotomy that equates simplicity with ease of use, and features with capability. Norman lays out the following, which he says is an implicit assumption:

    * Features ==> Capability
    * Simplicity ==> Ease of use

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