The Quest for Simplicity

Posted 3 weeks ago by Eugen Eşanu

Most of the times we think as complexity as something bad. And I tended to fall in that pitfall myself. Until one day when I was having a conversation with a product manager, and he was showing me how the flight schedule of Schipol Airport in Amsterdam was organised. He was showing me all the tables and data, and how the system worked. And he understood it perfectly, but for me, it looked like a basic and weird excel sheet. Frankly, I couldn’t understand a cent of what he was seeing in it. But then I realised that for him, that mess, that complexity is simplicity.

If you give it a proper thought you will realise that simplicity is only a matter of perception and perspective. It’s not only on a physical but rather more on a brain level. How you feel and how you see it. It has almost nothing to do with the physical form.

For example, if you are able to create an image, a feeling of simplicity, only by changing the copy and without making any changes to the core, then you succeeded in creating a great product.

Complexity is often thought to have a negative meaning, synonymous with difficulty and confusion. That may be true, but only if we equate it with differentiation alone. Yet complexity also involves a second dimension — the integration of autonomous parts. A complex engine, for instance, not only has many separate components, each performing a different function, but also demonstrates a high sensitivity because of each components in touch with all the others. Without integration, a differentiated system would be a confusing mess — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Perception is key

In 2000, the management at Houston airport (US) was receiving a significant amount of complaints from the travelers, on how long it takes to wait for the baggage. In response, the management dedicated a budget for improving the logistics, and on paper, the amount of time was reduced by 8 minutes.

At first glance, everything looks rational and well spent. But in reality, the number of complaints did not change. And here is where the power of designing perceptions rather than solutions comes in. Instead of investing more into personnel, who can handle the baggage, they took a psychological approach. The management focused on improving the subjective reality of things.

One crucial fact they discovered was that people spent about a minute walk to the carousel and eight minutes waiting. In this case they re-routed passengers after passport control, so they had to walk further. This meant they spent eight minutes walking to the carousel and just a minute waiting.

Even though picking time of their bags was the same, complaints went down. What matters more, in this case, is the perception that you are waiting less. Even if it means taking longer time to get to a baggage belt. Or as Rory Sutherland said in one of his talks “A solution to a problem in the 21st century may not be the answer. Instead, perception may be.

The enemy of simplicity is not complexity, but messiness (disorder). And the enemy of complexity is also disorder — Marty Neumeier, 46 Rules for Genius

While complexity seeks order through addition, simplicity seeks it through subtraction. Most people have a built-in bias toward addition instead of subtraction. For some reason, the concept of more comes naturally to us. Yet the innovator knows that the value of any design doesn’t lie in how much is piled on, but how much is disregarded.

And simplicity, the same as user research, is a matter of balance. Because if you become blinded by simplicity, you may lose the context of what is really important. As the case with flight schedule data from above. It’s all about context. For some people “complexity” is simplicity, and for others vice-versa. Here you have to know really well whom you are serving to find out about that balance. Nobody can do it for you.

The goal of design is to drive out disorder by maximising both simplicity and complexity. In most designed products, what we respond to best is a rich, layered experience (complexity) combined with ease of use, ease of understanding, or ease of purchase (simplicity) — Marty Neumeier

What is going to be more beneficial for the user?

That is the real question. If the user is going to use this product all day every day, and you can give them a 5x or 10x productivity boost, and they’re motivated, then you can afford to have a complex product with an intensive learning curve. Because it’s going to pay off for them and it’s going to be worth it. A good example here is Photoshop.

But some products shouldn’t make us think, and we subconsciously demand for them to be perceived as simple — like an iPhone. You don’t want to learn what your phone does — you just want to get it. So here, to see which is your case, you will have to emphasise how the user thinks and reflect their thinking model to your product. This is also a critical element that defines the so-called simplicity.

London’s Underground Map

How London’s Underground Map was designed, can teach us about all the basics of design. The map they made in 1908 wasn’t the best version of it. It was complex. You can see rivers, bodies of water, trees and parks. The stations were all crammed together, and there are some that could not even fit on the map. It was a mess. The map was accurate from a geographical point of view, but not so useful for an ordinary passenger.

The map showed all the important central stations, but it didn’t make it easy to find your way around. Station names crammed in with small font at odd angles. Because of that many lines have been twisted and got strange shapes. But in the end, not everything is that bad. Fast forward a couple of decades and we get a newly revamped version that is easier for the brain to digest. The new map was designed by Herry Beck.

Herry Beck was a 29-year-old engineering draftsman who worked for the London Underground. Even though he lost the job in the late 1920s, he kept his interest in London’s transport system.

He had a critical insight that people riding underground in trains don’t care what’s happening above ground. The primary goal of a passenger is to get from a station A to station B. Every person had 2 questions in mind “Where do I get on? Where do I get off?” So the system itself is important, not the geography. And he set on a project to “clean” the tube map.

On the new map he designed, the lines are going only in 3 directions: horizontal, vertical and diagonal (45 degrees). Also, he spaced the stations equally and made the colour of each station similar to the line. He created a system of symbols and colours understood by everyone, no matter their knowledge.

In the end, it became something different than a map. It became a diagram. Symbols and colours understood by everyone, no matter their knowledge. In 1933, he was encouraged by his friends to send the map to UERL no matter their reply. The company agreed to buy the design for £10 — equivalent to around £600 today — and give the map a try. After one thousand of pocket test maps sold, they realised that it was a better version. They decided to print 750k more and then we got the map we have today.

What UI/UX designers are trying to do today is what Beck did back in his days. He took a challenge and broke it down into pieces and thrown away all the unnecessary stuff. And left only the most essential information for the core user.

Simplicity = Perception

What’s most important is the fact that the map is not accurate. It does not show the real distance between stations or their location. What it does, is create a perception of clarity and understanding.

Designing a great UI is not rocket science. It has to be as simple as possible for the people to perform a task at hand and understand/get the information they need — fast. But we keep making them more complicated. We make them feel like a “software” rather than a “human interface”.

This article was originally published on Eugen’s Medium page.

Design and everything that’s inside. Creative Director at Laroche.co and host of Laroche.fm | More on laroche.co

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