There is a fine line to walk when designing with simplicity as goal. Products should be simple to use but as it turns out too simple gets rejected by people for different reasons.
First, it takes away the sense of control we strive for. As Don Norman writes: Would you pay more money for a washing machine with less controls? In the abstract, maybe. At the store? Probably not. Total automation doesn’t sell and in this case of a new Siemens washing machine, the company decided to add even more controls to satisfy the need of control of their customers (Simplicity is highly overrated by Don Norman).
Second, it deprives us of the pleasure of achieving. In the 50ies a finish made cake mixture was introduced. All people had to do was to add water to the mix and put the cake in the oven. The product failed because it was too simple. Later on more tasks were requested such as adding an egg into the mixture. This reintegrated a sense of achievement in the process.
Third, people prefer complex looking products. Cars with more buttons and controls sell better because they look more complex, therefore more expensive. To own an expensive and complex looking car symbolizes higher status though later on the complexity often frustrates the buyer. However, simplicity is often mistaken for low quality and inexpensive products. (Again: Simplicity is highly overrated by Don Norman)
If less is not always better what does it mean to strive for simplicity in design then?
No one wants to settle for a product with fewer features. We all want all the extras even if we are never going to use them afterwards. The goal of good design is not to eliminate features but to make them easy to use. No one wants something that is impossible to use.
Simplicity therefore should be understood as the process of making it easy for people to perform a certain task or behavior, thus improving their ability. As Dr. BJ Fogg points out in his behavior model for persuasive design, improving ability basically means making something easy to do. The magic word here is simplicity but not in the sense of eliminating functions but in lowering the barriers (making it simple) so people can perform a task with more ease.
We are fundamentally lazy beings. In general, we have little interest to invest huge amount of resources when performing a task. Most of the time we are reluctant to learn new things and if something requires effort we tend to avoid it.
In his behavior model Dr. Fogg breaks simplicity down into 6 elements which we can modify to create persuasive designs. The 6 parts relate to each other like in a chain and if one breaks the chain fails.
- Time: Time is a scarce resource. If a target behavior requires time and we don’t have time available, then the behavior is not simple. Reducing the time an action requires is one way to make a design “simpler” (in the sense of easier to do).
- Money: For people with limited financial resources, a target behavior that costs money is not simple. That link in the simplicity chain will break easily. If price is a barrier we should considering lowering that barrier.
- Physical Effort: Behaviors that require physical effort may not be simple. For example if I want to buy a product but have to travel all the way to the store, that could be perceived as not simple. If I can order the product online from home instead you don’t need to exert much physical effort.
- Brain Cycles: If performing a target behavior causes us to think hard, that might not be simple. This is especially true if our minds are consumed with other issues. For the most part, we overestimate how much everyday people want to think. Thinking deeply or thinking in new ways can be difficult.
- Social Deviance: If a target behavior requires me to be socially deviant, then that behavior is no longer simple.
- Non-Routine: People tend to find behaviors simple if they are routine. When people face a behavior that is not routine, then they may not find it simple. In seeking simplicity, people will often stick to their routine.
Note: Simplicity is not absolute. What is simple for one person might not be for another. The 6 elements allow us to understand which one is the scarcest in a certain situation. Once we know where the chain might break easily we can work on improving that element.
In this approach simplicity isn’t about making products minimalistic. It is about designing in a way to simplify the use of those products (and all their features). Simple doesn’t necessarily mean less and less doesn’t necessarily sell better. With the advancement of technology we don’t want to go backwards. Products should have more functions. Different functions that once where performed by different devices now are centralized in one (take the mobile phone for example). Design should aim to simplify the use of high technological devices so that everyday people can use them in an easy way.