OPINION THE WAY I SEE IT
Simplicity Is Not the Answer
Donald A. Norman
Nielsen Norman Group and Northwestern University | firstname.lastname@example.org
Everyone wants simplicity. The
same desires are there, whether
the device is a new cell phone or
a shop tool, the dashboard of an
automobile or the choices offered
while shopping in a store. “Why
can’t my technology be as easy
to use as my garage-door opener?” asks one paper on the topic.
“One button and it opens or
shuts the door. Simple, elegant.”
The cry has been picked up
by everyday people, newspaper
reviewers, and professionals
alike. But if it is so obvious, if the
need is so great, why don’t the
products rise to the occasion?
Everyone misses the point.
Simplicity is not the goal. We do
not wish to give up the power
and flexibility of our technologies. The garage-door opener
may be simple, but it hardly
does anything. If my cell phone
had only one button, it certainly
would be simple, but, umm, all I
could do would be to turn it on or
off—I wouldn’t be able to make a
phone call. Is the piano too complex because it has 88 keys and
three pedals? Should we simplify
it? Surely no piece of music uses
all of those keys. The cry for simplicity misses the point.
Just look at what people actually buy in the stores, says the
marketing expert: People really
want features. And yes, that is
very true. I made this point in
my earlier article on the subject
(“Simplicity Is Highly Overrated,”
interactions March+April 2007).
There is indeed an apparent
conflict here. As the number of
features increases, so too does
the desirability of the device.
But as the number of features
increases, simplicity goes down.
Subsequently, even as people
buy the devices with extra features, they cry out for simplicity.
Features versus simplicity: Is
there really a conflict? By standard measures, yes.
We want devices that do a lot,
but that do not confuse, do not
lead to frustration. Aha! This is
not about simplicity—it’s about
frustration. The entire debate
is being framed incorrectly.
Features do not equal capability. Simplicity is not the same as
usability. Simplicity is not the
There is an implicit assumption:
Simplicity Ease of use
These two statements translate into simple logic: Everyone
wants more capability, so therefore they want more features.
Everyone wants ease of use, so
therefore they want simplicity.
Alas, this simple logic is false
logic, false because it follows the
implications backward. Suppose
A sunny day it won’t rain.
Does this mean that if it
doesn’t rain, the day is sunny?
Of course not. The arrow goes
left to right: This says nothing
about the right-to-left direction.
So extra capability does not
require more features. Similarly,
ease of use does not require simplicity.
I conclude that the entire
argument between features
and simplicity is misguided.
People might very well desire
more capability and ease of use
without equating these things
with more features or simplicity. What people want is usable
devices, which translates into
The world is complex, and so
too must be the activities that
we perform. But that doesn’t
mean that we must live in continual frustration. No. The whole
point of human-centered design
is to tame complexity, to turn
what would appear to be a complicated tool into one that fits
the task—a tool that is understandable, usable, enjoyable.
Design to the Rescue
We are faced with an apparent paradox, but don’t worry:
Good design will see us through.
People want the extra power
that increased features bring to
a product, but they intensely dislike the complexity that results.
Is this a paradox? Not necessarily. Complexity can be managed.
Once we recognize that the
real issue is to devise things
that are understandable, we are
halfway toward the solution.
Good design can rescue us. How
do we manage complexity? We
use a number of simple design
rules. For example, consider
how three simple principles can
September + October 2008