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Are Designers Focussing On Simplicity--Or Do They Love Lots Of Features?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 08, 2007

A recent conference called on interface designers to pay more attention to simplicity and ease of use, especially for the growing older population.

Here are some quotes:

Panelist B.J. Fogg, a psychologist who founded Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, summarized the issue by saying that “every possibility you add to an interface increases your likelihood of failure” in the marketplace.

Tim Plowman, a professor who has studied human behavior at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Clara University, addressed the basic issue of convincing designers to devise interfaces that are intuitively accessible to users of all ages and levels of technical sophistication. “It is much, much harder,” he said, “to achieve simplicity in interaction design.”

Despite the difficulties, however, said moderator Junko Yoshida, news editor of EE Times, ease of use has become a “grave issue” in engineering. Designers, she said, must “listen to the SOS from consumers.”

The forum was sponsored by the MIT Club of Northern California and developed by the SmartSilvers Alliance, an organization concerned with technology accessibility issues among the elderly.

Bill Moggridge, founder of IDEO, a firm that designs user-centered products and services, noted that older users are slower to adapt to electronic device complexity because older users are more complex themselves, with “more things on our minds.” He said, “Among us wrinklies, it’s less likely that we’ll get it right away, unlike younger people.”

It all gets back to desining for your customers, not yourselves. In journalism, we are undergoing a major revolution in deconstructing the forms of stories—print, 3,6, 9 column stories, etc. written by one or two people—to embrace online conversations where the audience participates in the creation of a line of coverage. Technology, open-source and web 2.0 are pushing the same kind of trends in design and innovation. Ditto for business organization.

Thanks to Putting People First for signalling this conference to me.

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Reader Comments

David Malouf

April 9, 2007 04:49 AM

Hi Bruce,
Your phrasing of the question, "Are Designers Focussing On Simplicity--Or Do They Love Lots Of Features?" is not actually the right polarity.
Simplicity and features are not on the same continuum as suggested by your phrasing.

I think it is overly reductionist and well incorrect to suggest that we designers are all about features and thus that is why things are made to be too difficult to use.

First off, designers react to so many pieces of a puzzle and seldom are the makers of requirements for products. So while you have jumped ahead to a universe that blames designers for our debacle of feature rich products, 90% of designers work as a service to business marketing folks. It is just the reality that is out there today. To ignore it in the hope of creating a world where designers are at the strategic leadership of most products, while nice, is also not-realistic.

Second, market demands ARE actually requesting more features. Just look at the advancement of the iPod since its introduction. It has had to add things that Steve Jobs said at one point I would never do. I think to paraphrase him, if You can't do use it while jogging then I wouldn't add it to an iPod. He was speaking directly to the many requests to add video and photos into pre-third generation iPods. TiVo is another product line that has been touted for its simplicity but had to keep up with market demand and make features ever present.

Features are a reality. ...

But clarity, simplicity, control, communication, engagement

THESE are the marks of a designer's war chest and where design should be criticized if it is not hitting the mark. But my reading of the design community in interactive systems, is that in those organizations that have real design teams whether interaction or industrial there is already a heavy emphasis on the above, but the gosh honest truth is that the problem sets are incredibly complex, the solutions are technically complex beyond belief, the organizations involved are not prepared for the real investments necessary to manage this level of complexity, and finally the types of communication tools needed to enable all this, is not ready either.

It is hard enough to design a tool or system for a single persona type, but what you are suggesting is that there is the possibility of a single design solution across a multitude of persona types. I'm not sure I believe in THAT vision of "universal design", but rather a vision where organizations design ecosystems that are responsive to different user types through dynamic manipulation of interfaces. Or even so far as to have niche specific products within that ecosystem that work across a platform.

"Simplicity is not easy."


April 10, 2007 05:46 PM

You will see simplicity become a large part of innovation, especially if “cradle to cradle” design and a small carbon footprint are going to be required in the next business model for profitability. It only makes sense if a user is going to keep products longer through self-upgrades and modifications that the system be as simple as possible. However, the trick will be as to “how”. This is where innovation comes into play. The successful engineers and designers will use innovative platforms to accomplish simplicity without sacrificing features. Companies that can develop this balance will excel at offering both simplicity and functionality and will be the ones paving the way. If the platform is designed correctly, a bi-product will be a smaller carbon footprint. Along with longer product life there’ll be fewer parts, environmentally friendly processes and shorter lead-times, which should lead to cost effective manufacturing utilizing less energy and resources.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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