Simplicity – A Very Complex Problem

The holy grail of almost every product and service is simplicity. After all, nobody sets out to create a complicated product. But with digital success so squarely predicated on  engagement and user experience, simplicity has evolved from being an unstated philosophy to a raucous war-cry, uttered often and fervently in board-rooms and product meetings, and KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) signs adorning complex project plans. 

Yet, simplicity remains a fiendishly complex challenge. 

Simplicity is a loaded term, it typically refers to things which are basic, or easy to use, or intuitive. It can be interpreted as doing things that bring calmness. In the Indian epic Mahabharata, Judhishtir was so named because he could be calm, in battle. We are usually able to point to examples of simplicity. Whether it’s a home-cooked meal, or the joy of a sunset, our favourite beverage consumed in our favourite chair. The consensus for simplicity in products, tends to be towards intuitiveness. Something that does not require education, training or a manual for example, the Nokia phones and an the iPhone, both in their way wonderfully intuitive. The power of simplicity is also obvious. Simplicity drives acceptance and adoption. It is the reason why soccer is the worlds favourite game, or why the world wide web is indeed world-wide. Simplicity for many people is a deeply held philosophy. For some it is typified by a child like state. 

One might argue that simplicity is born, not created. Some people have a great ability to make things appear incredibly simple. Listen to Alex Fergusson speak about football strategy and tactics, and it will seem like anybody could have done it. And yet, he stands ruthlessly alone in his decades-long and consistent success as a football manager. Closer to home, one of my closest friends from childhood, Kabir, is a well respected and successful leader in the retail industry in India. There are two things I will always remember about Kabir. Almost 20 years ago, when he was a middle manager, handling a menswear category, I asked him why he didn’t stock shoes in his store and he said there was too little return per square-foot of space, where space is the most expensive part of retail, in India. I used to tease him about his fascination about returns per square foot but he had already drilled down to the nub of the problem. The other vivid memory from about the same time, was walking into his office and seeing his desk, an expanse of table surface with nothing but a desk-phone. For somebody like me, who lives and works in perma-clutter, this has always been a utopean and other-worldly fantasy. We see examples of simplicity all around us – Steve Jobs famously had a home environment that embodied simplicity. Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe rationale is now well known. Living simple clearly has a contribution to make to your output. But those who can simplify effectively often are seemingly able to reach a higher plane of thinking about a problem. 

Some people naturally simplify, some don’t analyse it, but can go with the flow, for some it’s not desirable – simplicity isn’t a universal desire. It’s not a panacea. But clearly it only makes sense in context. Hence, like beauty, it depends on the eye of the beholder. It may be contextual – if you give a hunter-gatherer a plough, she may not know what to make of it. To a farmer, it may be intuitive. It stands to reason therefore that to design something simple you must be able to see it from the users frame of reference, and appreciate his or her skill and capability. It also means that a way of solving complex problems is to change the frame of reference. Not surprisingly, some of the quoted methods involve asking ‘what would a child do?’ or ‘what would granny do?’. Seen this way, simplicity implies a kind of innocence. A happy naïveté even. Einstein’s warning is probably relevant here. “You must make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Over-simplification is a trap to avoid – lest you bore the user. And of course, when your toddler son or daughter asks you how babies are made, you  are caught in the very vortex of the problem of simplification. 

There are probably tomes of scientific papers dealing with simplicity and complexity. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 thinking is an obvious surrogate for simplicity. The purpose of this post is not to delve into the scientific understanding of how we deal with simplicity, although it would probably be a useful perspective to add. 

The problem is, while many of know how we would define it, and almost all of us would recognize it if we saw it, very few are able to find the path to it. And yet, simplicity is as much a journey as a destination. 

The next time, when you switch on your TV set at the end of a long week and settle in to watch a primetime show on Saturday night, maybe the next series of Breaking Bad, all you’ll need to do is switch on the TV, the set top box, and find the right channel. But for the broadcaster, the process may have started almost a year before. In fact considering the complexity of a broadcast operation – including all the scheduling, planning, program acquisition, ad-sales operations, the movement of physical and digital media, transcoding, automation and transmission, compliance and legal and other areas, it is an everyday miracle that you switch the TV on and there’s something there to watch. (And this is without even considering the effort and challenge of producing the show, manufacturing the TV set and getting the signal into your living room). 

Think of some of your other simple examples – withdrawing money from an ATM, receiving the newspaper at your door in the morning, turning the ignition key in your car; each of these and a hundred more simple tasks often mask an ocean of complexity that goes on unnoticed behind the scenes. This is the first lesson of simplicity. Often, to make something simple, especially for an end user of a product or process, you have to take on and resolve an enormous amount of complexity. Personally speaking, nothing annoys me more than managers who cut short a discussion around a problem by claiming the faux high-ground of simplicity. Complexity doesn’t vanish, it gets resolved, in great detail, by somebody else, and kept under the hood, so you can just turn a key or press a button to start a car. 

In the lives we live today, simplicity is often reductive – it involves removing the noise and complexity. Very rarely is our starting point for anything we’re trying to design, simple. We need to untangle, and even unlearn. And more often than not, it’s a journey. A sentiment echoed by a lot people who responded to my request for interpreting the term. Achieving simplicity is therefore, anything but simple. Especially so, for an organisation or a group, rather than an individual. It therefore involves the mastery of concepts such as minimalism, essentialism or lean. In each of these, we are trained to take Occam’s razor to a problem space. But it can take years of experience to arrive at a state where the eye can spot the waste and the extraneous. The second great lesson of simplicity therefore is the wisdom of spotting the signal in a sea of noise. Or conversely, identifying the waste from the core. This is as true of everyday life, as it is of product design. 

Identifying the waste is just a part of the problem. Sometimes, the far greater challenge is the choice making. To deliver the shiny elegance that is the iPhone, Steve Jobs & co had to make some pretty big choices. An obvious one amongst them being the complete inability of the user to add memory, or change the battery of the phone. Features as core to a phone, you might think, as a leg, to a table. And yet, this was the stark choice exercised by Apple. When was the last time you let go of something significant, to achieve simplicity? 

There are some very successful digital platforms and products out there who owe their success at least to a significant part to their simplicity. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dropbox, Evernote, Trello, and Spotify as some of the highly popular and simple products. The bar for simplicity can often be reset. Salesforce.com is a platform which has succeeded because it greatly simplified the sales management process, but today, if you look at tools like Pipedrive, they make salesforce look like the older, complex model. Remember Einstein’s wisdom about ’no simpler’ – and yet, this can be redefined and barriers can be broken. The journey is the point. 

You only have to look at some of the most successful products, apps and websites to understand how visually simplicity works. From fonts and colours, to choices and tasks, there is now as much science as art to creating the intuitive usability in products that we all crave. But of course, simplicity does not start and end on the screen, it needs to be carried through a range of interactions and experiences. Is it simple to speak with somebody on the phone? Is it simple to return goods? Pay a bill? Find information? Upgrade? Downgrade? And remember for each of these, the simpler you make it, the more complex it often is, behind the scenes. 

A part of the problem is that there is no formula. Most people tend to view simplification as decluttering, removal, or reduction to the basics or essentials. Yet, while this idea is by itself appealing, there are times when simplicity may come through synthesis. Remember the story about the blind men and the elephant. Or imagine trying to describe a car by it’s components. Sometimes simplicity comes from the whole, rather than the parts. Focusing on the whole provides clarity of thought. 

And then there’s the problem of time. What starts of as simple invariably grows complex. Just look at the number of sects of any major religion. Or consider Twitter – from the idea of creating a simple 140 character update, an entirely new language, syntax and ontology of acronyms has risen. Reading a tweet is anything but simple today. It is human nature to complicate, it seems, so the yin and yang of simplicity and complexity must coexist, over time. 

The bottom line is, whether you treat simplicity as a philosophical foundation of your life, or a professional preference, and whether it manifests in your relationships or your products, its clear that you may need to treat it as a series of simplifications and pay as much attention to the process as the outcome. And the journey may be far from easy, and paved with false results. After all, as HL Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. 
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Ranting At The C-Word!

So…

I was at a Creative Industries event organised by the Technology Strategy Board yesterday. An event designed to bring together the creative and technology disciplines. And one of the many issues touched upon was the need to break out of the ‘creative industries’ straightjacket and to explore creative roles and jobs in other industries. Which led me to thinking about one of my favourite subjects: 

The rampant misuse of the C-word. 

In fact, it’s a very close call as to which word is more bastardised – ‘creative’? or ‘innovation’? But today I’m talking about the former. What does the word mean to you? Is it a skill? Is it a profession? Is it a role? Is it perhaps just a trait? 

I have experienced at close quarters for many years, the cliched and lazy labelling within the technology industry of the concept of creative work. This usually assumes that (a) all ‘creatives’ are the same, and makes no distinction between architectural or conceptual skills versus execution and tool-level skills, for example; (b) phrases like ‘UX’, ‘UI’, ‘creative’, ‘design’ and anything else which smells of visual design related activity are all synonyms and can be used interchangeably. 

This isn’t one sided. This kind of apathetic adjectivisation is common even among creative communities, when it comes to others. You’re a techie, or a suit. Or you’re a quant… you need classifying, not for your good but more for people to be able to pigeonhole you in their mental cubicles. 

I like to think of creativity as a trait. A problem solving capability which looks at the same problem differently. By this definition Newton, Gauss and Einstein would be among the most creative people the world has known. Serial inventors, entrepreneurs and technologists are creative. The best enterprise or solution architects in technology companies demonstrate this kind of creativity on an everyday basis. 

What we commonly call ‘creative’ is actually either referencing design or art. And again, these are two very distinct worlds. Design is a science, a discipline with a clear deliverable against a defined need. You design a house, or a doorknob, or a website or a logo with a view to delivering some fairly clearly defined objectives. Consequently good design is often dependent on the effective articulation of the objectives. 

Art is also a discipline and involves technique and often, structure, but by definition the objective of art is defined by the creator and as such it becomes a form of expression. The creator might want to make a point, raise an issue, support a cause, but equally, she might pander to a whim, be overcome by a subliminal urge, be provocatively abstract or seek no meaning at all. 

You can, therefore, have creative people who have nothing to do with design or art. You can have designers who are good but not particularly creative. Unusual but true. You can have great artists who would make bad designers and vice versa. Usually on the basis of their willingness or ability to work within the structure of a brief and the tyranny of an objective.

If you wrote a book with the purpose of making money, creating a bestseller, or selling a movie script, you would be designing. If you wrote a book that wasn’t governed by the outcome, you would be an artist. You might be a great wordsmith but poor at plots. Those are examples of the techniques you need for any discipline.

Advertising therefore is more design than art. Except for those wonderful ads which are great except that you can’t remember the product or brand. That’s good art, not good design. Or those ads which are made for awards. Or perhaps, that too, should be called design. 

In the context of film-making, who is the creative brain? Definitely the director, and to an lesser but important extent, the editor, the cinematographer and choreographer, to name a few. But usually not the actors. They are usually following the directors brief. They are in effect, designing a performance.

Of course, I’m stretching a point. In every one of these examples, there is a need for creativity and artistic expression, which may well make the difference between good and mediocre, and between making history and being history. I’m simply driving these giant imaginary wedges between art, design, and creativity, to make the point bluntly.

And to state the blindingly obvious, design is greatly enhanced by creativity. You only have to look at some of the best design to see the magic touch of a creative insight or treatment. This chair, this ambulance redesign, this wheelchair, this plug, and this folding wheel, all have a creative spine which makes them stand taller than their peers. It’s just important to distinguish between the terms for better results, especially when you’re in the results (read: design) business. 

And so, every time at work I see people lumping terms together, I bite my tongue and control my fingers from typing that shouty email. But the irony is of course, that when you’re designing a mobile app, which is a highly constrained experience in so many ways, the creativity often needs to come from the technologist, and the discipline, from the designer. 

As to art, you can always find it in the gallery.