Minimalism, Simplicity, and our Complex Needs
A few weeks ago, I pinged on my Twitter Stream: “I have been musing if simplicity is overrated. Humans are inherently complex creatures. What do you think”? I got a few responses mostly disagreeing with my thoughts, with many people suggesting that we need simplicity in our overly complex world. However, the responses had not fully convinced me as I had a few nagging thoughts over this Simplicity issue.
I think there is a lot more to this discussion, more than about “just making things simple and easy to use”. Why are some objects simple and easy to use but end up limited and boring? Why are some objects, like the iPhone, simple to use but somehow able to have many layers of more complex functions? Is this what they call simplexity, or an “emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity”? (via Wikipedia)
Recently Tim Brown muses with his colleagues at IDEO that simplicity in form, also called minimalism, is about a surface treatment or style that is “…limited in its usefulness”.
My own view is that minimalism has come to represent a style and as such is limited in its usefulness. It represents a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex. This is an important difference. One is about the surface, about the stuff. The other is about our experience and requires a deep appreciation of how things work so as to make them just simple enough.
So we can achieve simplicity when we are able to understand, distill and appreciate the complex enough to extract the simple. The Guru of simplicity: John Maeda, expands on this at his Laws of Simplicity blog. John writes:
Image from Laws of Simplicity
Muji expresses their point that achieving simplicity is deceptively complex because it is a thoughtful process.
I thought the description of Muji’s process pretty much nails it. But perhaps, the Harvard Business Blog’s Ron Ashkenas says it best by putting simplicity in a commercial context with his post: “Selling Simplicity — Not Just Marketing It“.
The reality is that simplicity is highly appealing in a world that is getting more and more complex — where consumers have too many choices, where technology is constantly evolving, and where the political and economic environment is unpredictable. In the midst of all this instability and change, people want to get back to basics. They want uncomplicated products, straightforward guidance, and things that work quickly and simply the first time, without lots of extra effort.
What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it is in sharp contrast with the thinking of the past few years — which was that consumers wanted unlimited choice so that they could customize their products and services to fit their own unique needs and lifestyles. As such, technology companies pushed for more and more bells and whistles, while other firms drove towards mass customization. The result was a huge array of choices that became almost overwhelming and costly.
The hardest part of simplicity is when a designer or product manager has to take a conscious effort to limit functions or specifications of a product to the most crucial ones. The process of achieving simplicity is highly complex one. I would say it requires a good combination of anthropological studies, analyzing consumer behavior and two secret ingredients, a designer’s problem solving skill and critical insight.
I agree with Ron that now more so than ever, the focus on consumer profiles and segments will continue to be very important in our product development process as it drives designs that are created from a consumer perspective. Better still, it really shows that we are listening to them.
I hope you enjoyed this mini research exercise as much as I did. Looking forward to reading your comments!