Monday, May 27, 2019

Hardly Simple

The word association between simple, simpleton and simplistic is psychologically indelible. It is, however, mystifying how a word that means easy is often conflated with being foolish and shallow, in that order. Sometimes, simple is also wilfully alternated with cheap and unsophisticated. Does this perhaps explain why technology companies, for instance, embraced the banal word user-friendly in the 1970s, rather than describe their products as easy to use?


To avoid getting lost in a semantics rabbit hole, I will adopt the utilitarian definition of simple as “uncomplicated in form, nature or design.” In contrast, the opposite word, complex, connotes “difficult to analyse or understand.”

On the surface, it would seem like an easy decision to favour simplicity over complexity, but that would disregard the true nature of the world. We live on a planet where people are constantly striving to create order out of chaos. Nonetheless, it is virtually impossible to remain at equilibrium because of life’s tendency to tip us into chaos when we least expect it. In the same vein, the physical and metaphysical world that we inhabit is inherently complex, which leaves us with the abiding challenge of how to simplify our existence.

For now, instead of addressing existential questions, I will explore the correlation between simplicity, complexity and creativity, bearing in mind that human creativity and complexity are sometimes inseparable. To be sure, creativity is a very broad canvas that is associated with everything from an idea to a painting, musical score, conceptual design, scientific theory, and the list goes on. In practice, finding the sweet spot between complexity and simplicity is often difficult, and sometimes can prove elusive. But be that as it may, below are some non-dogmatic principles that you may find compelling in the pursuit of simplicity:

1. Articulate a vision and/or Visualise an outcome
2. Reduce complexity by shrinking or hiding whatever is superfluous
3. Subtract the unnecessary and add discreetly
4. Prioritise and Organise with tact
5. Embrace openness and empty spaces
6. Eliminate waste and reap more from less
7. Compress time by removing non-value adding steps
8. Concede that complexity is sometimes unavoidable

On that last point, can you think of a situation when complexity might be inescapable? It may sound facetious, but who would want to travel in a spacecraft that couldn’t lift off the launch pad?

For those who are decidedly earthbound, the stakes may not be as high, nevertheless logic suggests that a one-cap-fits-all design philosophy across the primary, secondary, service and knowledge sectors of the economy is hardly tenable. Therefore, when developing a product or service, it pays to keep the expectations of users or consumers - delineated as expert, middlebrow and conventional - in firm focus.

Expert users are usually unfazed by complexity and viscerally demand new features, customisation, and a high degree of sophistication. Middlebrows will tolerate moderate changes from the norm, but within touching distance of their comfort zone. The majority of people, portrayed as being conventional, expect few frills and are motivated primarily by functionality, simplicity, and affordability.

Two iconic products -  Ford Motor’s Model T vehicle and Apple’s iPod music player - demonstrated how to succeed by appealing to the mass market without compromising quality. Intriguingly, a counterintuitive finding over the years has shown that it is often more difficult to build a simple and robust product that works than to develop a complex alternative.

Simplicity may lack high salience but undervaluing it is usually a losing proposition.

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