Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Make It Simple Stupid!

Catching up on some delayed reading last night, I happened across an article in WIRED that discussed something I have wondered about for years - how subtraction is the hardest math in product design. By that, it means taking things away rather than adding complexity. It goes on to discuss our technology and why simplicity triumphs. He says, "Simple doesn't just sell, it sticks. Simple brought back Apple from the dead. Its why you have Netflix. The Swiss Army Knife. All are marvels of simplicity."

I remember in my youth that Coco Chanel was the goddess of fashion. Her statement "less is more" rang true then as it still does today. It is very easy to make things complex and stores are filled with such objects. (So are our homes - many sitting on some dusty shelf unused. VCR's that flashed 12:00 until they died.) However, it is very hard to take something we use, often everyday, and make it, well, usable. The article mentions the first microwaves. We had wealthy friends who had one and he is right, it had three settings; low, medium and high. The one that sits on our kitchen counter looks like a doomsday machine. I can barely use it. I heat coffee in the morning, leftovers in the afternoon and maybe make popcorn at night.

Author Mike Montiero whose book DESIGN IS A JOB notes that simplicity is about subtraction. We live in a culture of consumption where quality is associated with more. The question we have to ask though, is it really more? Is it quality if our technology does more than we will ever ask of it because you just can?

Artists probably unknowingly do this cutting out all the time. Every detail of a painting doesn't need to be there. Amazingly our eyes will fill in what we leave out. Sure, there have been realistic paintings that boggle the mind but you can bet not everything was there or in that order. It is more important to bring the viewer into the piece, give them enough of an image so they can complete the rest. Even well done abtract pieces use simplicty in ways we often are not conscious of. While the artist tries to say with words what he did, it is the visual image put down on canvas that speaks louder than words.

Using Apple as a prime case of simplicity that has grown to complexity (yes it has and it is very discouraging) it was simplicity that saved Apple. Hit after hit rolled out. Each item was simple to use because the complexity was hidden from the user. Yet, like Microsoft, as it grew complexity crept in. I hate OS 10.8. iTunes has become the parody Microsoft did of themselves. The opening screen looks like a souk in Casablanca. Its time they get back to basics. I think many are hoping that Jony Ive will do just that.

Microsoft was brave in creating Windows 8, again in theory simplicity itself. Yet, once you get beyond the colorful squares, it quickly becomes a nightmare. To use your old apps, you return to the old screens and menus that now take twice as long to get there. It's confusing, even jarring. In essence Microsoft made Windows 8 more complicated not less.

I remember when MS Office 2008 came out. The howls of rage could be heard across the earth. Every menu we had learned was changed. A new, take more of your screen (a precious commodity on laptops) ribbon had a bunch of new icons that was to make your life easier. It didn't. To add insult to injury documents now added an x so a Word document now ended with .docx. Guess what, any version before 2008 couldn't open them. In the Mac world, the best Office Suite was 5.1. It was fast, elegant, simple. It did what what most people needed, probably more. In making niches happy, they added more and more until it is a huge bloated pig of a program that is slow to load and slower to save. Did the average user need all this? No. They should have made specialized modules available and kept a slim, fast program. In fact they still could. Will they? Probably not. They missed their chance twice to completely re-write their OS. It is a bit jarring in the 21st century to see that flash of MS-DOS on your start up screen. Apple did it. Microsoft should have.

The question remains CAN a computer, phone and tablet use the same operating system? Even Apple will not go there. Computers may have elements of iOS but they are distinctly different. Hopefully Apple will finally get these different pieces to talk to each other (iCloud is NOT it) but for now they recognize they are different breeds.

Simplicity is really simple. It requires cutting things away even if market forces say to add more. We should be taking layers away instead of adding them. "All it takes," as Mat Honan notes, "is a bit of courage."

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