Simplicity is Not Overrated, Just Misunderstood

by on 09/06/10 at 4:46 pm

[Note: This article is a response to “Simplicity is Highly Overrated” by Don Norman, Column written for Interactions. © CACM, 2007]

“Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity,” is what Don Norman states in his “Simplicity is Highly Overrated” article.

He explains that users say they want simplicity in products, but they don’t really mean it. Instead, what they really want are features, “even if the features confuse more than they help.”

Usability and user experience design is all about making things simple and easy to use. I never would’ve expected such a contradictory statement coming from someone who co-founded the Nielsen and Norman group, a firm that offers usability consulting, training seminars and research reports. This statement puts a dagger into the back of usability and user experience design.

If “simplicity does not sell” that renders the job of every user experience professional irrelevant and useless. If that statement were true, the field of user experience would not be growing at the rate it is today. If that statement were true, Apple and Google would not be the number one companies in their respective technological niches.

Have you ever counted how many times Steve Jobs uses the words “simple” and “easy to use” to describe a product in his keynote presentations? It’s a lot. Simplicity sells because users want products that are easy to use. Nobody has ever requested that a product be harder to use. And nobody ever will. They might want more features in a product, but that does not mean they want a hard to use product.

Users’ desire for both features and easy to use products will never go away. They do not only want one or the other. They want both. It’s the job of the designer to give users the best of both worlds. This is not easy to do because more features often lead to a more complex user interface. However, that’s the challenge posed to the designer – to work with complexity and make it simple and easy to use. When you use the right interaction design techniques, it’s possible to do.

Mr. Norman believes that “when it comes time to purchase, people tend to go for the more powerful products, and they judge the power by the apparent complexity of the control.” This statement is, for the most part, true, but it only applies for certain people.

When people have to choose which product to buy, people will actually choose the simpler product when their needs for a product are clearly defined. However, if they cannot clearly define what their needs for a product are, they will choose the more complex product with more features.

As Mr. Norman says, “don’t reason your way to a solution — observe real people.” While observing real people are important, it’s a common research mistake to draw conclusions on people’s actions alone. You have to take into account people’s needs and how they’re defined. People who choose simple products over complex ones need a specialized design that meets their clearly defined needs well. People who choose complex products over simple ones need a design that has a broad set of features because their needs for a product aren’t as well-defined.

This is a key piece of information that Mr. Norman leaves out in his one-sided article. Not all products will see the light of success by cramming more features into their product. It depends on the product and how well-defined their users’ needs are. There is, however, one thing that we can be sure of. Everyone wants a product that is cool and stylish. Sometimes the style and status symbol of a product can have more of an impact than how many features it has or how easy it is to use. But that depends on the social culture at the time. Styles and trends will come and go through time.

Having a product that is stylish and a symbol of status is not an excuse to neglect user needs. If your business plan is a long-term one, pay attention to the quality of your product’s features and its ease of use. Design a product that gives users the best of both worlds. That’s how successful businesses, like Apple, continue to sell millions of products each year.

Simplicity is Not Overrated, Just Misunderstood


Simplicity is Not Overrated, Just Misunderstood Simplicity is Not Overrated, Just Misunderstood

Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

27 Responses to “Simplicity is Not Overrated, Just Misunderstood”

  1. Elena

    Sep 7th, 2010

    Yes, users want more features, but they want them to be easily accessible. I can’t help noticing every time a tool makes me take an extra step to achieve something, whilst I’m delighted whenever such path is intuitive and quick.

  2. Pritam Pebam

    Sep 13th, 2010

    Totally agree!!
    Yes, no one ever says “OK, come on now, let’s make this product really really complex!” :)

  3. Larry Tesler

    Sep 13th, 2010

    Not all users want all features. User A wants features 1, 3 and 5. User B wants features 1, 2 and 5. User C wants features 2 and 4. Etc. The product manager has a few choices: put all 5 features in one product; create a line of products with various combinations of features; leave some needs unmet.

    Often, some needs are left unmet at first to keep cost down and ease of use up. Once customers become used to the product, new versions can be released with additional features that may make the product harder for newbies to learn but “intuitive” to existing users.

  4. Don Norman

    Sep 13th, 2010

    Your reasoning is fine. Alaas, it doesn’t match my experience with real people, real products, and real sales. As I often have to explain to people, youor problem is that you are being too logical. People are emotional, not logical. Logic is an artifical way of thinking, one that we have to teach.

    I agree cookmpletely that it is the role of the designer to handle complexity, to tame it, to make complex things understandable and easy. Apple does a good job. Their products are not simple: they are amazingly complex. Thjey have a zillion ffeatures. But they comparamentalize them. They structure them. They make the productr understandable and desirable.

    In the end, I beleive that we are in agreement.

    My new book, Living with Complexity, tries to explain this in depth, something my short articvle that you are resopnding to did not do. (The book is scheduled to be published in October. Chapter 1 is available now on my website jnd.org).

    • anthony

      Sep 13th, 2010

      I don’t think you have right to accuse me of being too logical, when what you’re doing is drawing your conclusions based on logic. It might seem like you’re using your experiences to justify your claim but you’re actually using logic. I’ll explain.

      You say that your experience with users support your claim. But just because the users you work with all like the product with the most features doesn’t mean all users are like that, even if this happens 9 times out of 10. What it probably means is that users who have these specific needs for that specific product would buy that product because of its features.

      What you are doing is generalizing your experiences with your own groups of users and products, and assuming that this applies for all products and users everywhere. You have failed to explore both sides of the coin and only looked at one. Because of this you have ignored the exceptions. You used your logic to justify your claim because you have seen it so many times with your own users and products. You’re thinking, “This comes up time and time again with my users and products. This must mean that the majority of users and products everywhere are like this.” This is a logical fallacy of accident or sweeping generalization at its best.

      People are indeed emotional, and not logical. Isn’t that why you’re appealing to peoples emotions with your claims when you try to sell your book?

  5. Karen

    Sep 13th, 2010

    I don’t agree that “Everyone wants a product that is cool and stylish”. This statement is also only applies for certain people.
    It’s true that enough people are influenced by the status of the product to make that a strong selling point. But there are huge swathes of people consciously or unconsciously immune to fashion. We need to be careful to not generalise user needs.

  6. Justo

    Sep 13th, 2010

    I think you may have missed the point.

    Remember he is talking about ‘features’ or ‘power’, not ease of use. He is saying people see more value in something that has 20 easy-to-use features over something that has 5 easy-to-use features, even if they probably won’t use the 15 extra features and having 15 extra features makes the item appear more ‘complex’. I can believe that.

    My first reaction was the same as yours, but I think it is a personal view, exactly what Norman is warning against. I agree you have different users with different needs, and I think the examples he gave are male doninated purchases – men like features – but he was generalising… and being contentious. Don Norman may not be the quite the windbag that Nielsen is, but he still has books to sell.

    Anyone agreeing with thie article should look at the excellent comments and general disagreement it got on IxDA http://www.ixda.org/node/27391

  7. eleneena

    Sep 13th, 2010

    Good article. Like you, I was totally confused the first time I read Norman’s article.
    Since then, he has expanded on the concept (http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/simplicity_is_not_the_answer.html) and I think I now understand what he’s saying. It’s not a case of users not wanting simplicity, but just a warning that simplicity by itself is not enough to make an interface easy to use or desirable. He’s defending good design and pointing out that we are in danger of over simplifying what actually makes a good user interface – no pun intended!

  8. Marielle Winarto

    Sep 13th, 2010

    Both you and Don Norman make some very good points. When the only variable is the number of features, it’s my experience as well that most users will blindly choose the version with most functions, even if they don’t use them. You argue that there are also people with clearly defined user needs, and they tend to be less influenced by the number of features, and focus more on the desired (narrow) qualities they want. In my opinion, it basically is a matter of perceived value.

  9. theothermatt

    Sep 14th, 2010

    The point of the Don Norman’s original article is not that people actively seek more complex products or experiences. It is that they self-report simplicity as a major influencer in purchasing decisions, even as they actually purchase less simple products.

    Their claims and their actions do not match. In many of the usability tests I’ve done over the years, I’ve observed similar issues.

    In work for the automotive industry, for instance, we had data based on consumers being asked what their three most important buying motivators were before they bought a car. “Price” featured in the top 2 motivators across every vehicle or demographic segment. We also had data from those people being asked the question again just after they bought a car and “Price” drops out of the top 3 all over the place and is replaced by “Exterior style and appearance”.

  10. David Rondeau

    Sep 17th, 2010

    It seems to me that there is one crucial distinction that isn’t being made throughout this discussion. When people say they want something “simple”, it can mean two different things. It could mean that they want a product that has less features or it could mean they want a simple experience. These are very different things. I can buy a product because it has minimal features—but that doesn’t mean it will be easy or simple to use. I can buy a product because it has many complex features—but that doesn’t mean it’s difficult (or not simple) to use. These are two distinct and different concepts.
    A product can be perceived as simple because it has less features compared to other products. The experience of using a product can feel simple (or easy to use) because there is less hassle and confusion compared to what I expect or am used to. So the real problem is that we don’t have a shared understanding of what we mean when we use the word “simple”. In many of the conversations I’ve seen on this topic, here and elsewhere, people are clearly using it to mean different things—without realizing it. We present and argue our opinions with each other, but it’s like we’re not really in the same conversation. Issues don’t seem to get resolved and it’s hard to reach a consensus and move forward.
    So the next time you find yourself using the word “simple” in a design discussion, think about what you really mean. I’m not claiming it’ll change the world, but it will probably make that design discussion a little more fruitful.
    It’s funny—even the word “simple” isn’t so simple, is it?

  11. mark f

    Sep 18th, 2010

    Its a balance between simplicity and features. Add features as long as they are meaningful and can be done in a very clean, clear and simple way. If something is too complex and confusing, you drop it.

  12. BenAlabaster

    Sep 20th, 2010

    What the..?

    Okay, as an end user – a very technical end user (I’m a software engineer, and I’ve studied computer science, I’m your average slightly jocular geek), I have a very specific set of needs. Everyone’s needs are as individual as mine. I agree users without a specific set of needs will tend towards the most flexible product because they perceive that is the better product.

    All that said, I *still* want simplicity. I don’t want a shit load of features, I *do* want the features I want. Going back to your home theatre example, because that’s the one that pisses me off the most in Canada.

    My needs are simple, in fact, I have 4 basic requirements and none of them are complicated:

    I’ve got Rogers Cable, but the same applies to Bell ExpressVu, Shaw Cable and all the other providers in Canada.

    - I want a system where I can DVR/PVR my subscription channels in HD without the need for a set top box.

    - I also want to be able to play those recordings back on any TV/Computer in the house so that I don’t need to be sitting in the room I recorded them in to watch them.

    - We should be able to assume that any/all of the TVs are in use at any given time and nobody watching any of the TVs should be affected, i.e. they should all be able to watch shows that have previously been recorded on the central DVR devices or watch their own channels on live TV.

    - I don’t want to spend hours days and weeks sourcing the parts and configuring the system to work the way I want it.

    I do not want complexity, I don’t want all the set top boxes that my cable/satellite provider dictates I have, I don’t want stupid IR blaster setups that allow me to control a set top box in the basement from the bedroom upstairs. The complexity is astoundingly idiotic considering all I ask is 4 things – none of them complicated.

    I don’t think this is too much to ask – that technology fits in with our lives, not the other way around.

    It’s a piece of cake to make a product that’s easy to use. Understand what people want it to do; understand how they would expect it to work… and make it do those things and make it work the way users would expect it to work. Job done.

    The problem is simple: The people designing and building it are comfortable with complexity, they can probably tell you the finer points of why the quicksort algorithm is so efficient off the top of their head; What is “elementary” to them is beyond confusing for many people – most people don’t even know what a quicksort algorithm is, or that one exists. People who are comfortable with complexity should not be designing user interfaces for people who are not.

    • anthony

      Sep 21st, 2010

      I completely share your sentiment. It’s better to do a few things really well, than many things mediocre.

  13. Jim Danby

    Sep 20th, 2010

    Looks like you missed the point, as did a lot of your readers. What the original article says is not that people want lots of features and a simple interface. It is that people want a complex interface. Not one that is hard to use – only a masochist would want that – but one that looks complex so that they can internally justify the price.

    It’s also not about continued use where the extra complexity may be disliked by the user in the end. It’s about first impressions. In general, people look at the item with more buttons as better value than that with less, irrespective of usability or true funcitonality.

    You may not like this conclusion but it’s certainly my experience too after dealing with people in many industries, businesses and with the general public.

    Finally, the Apple and Google examples are misplaced. People who are Apple fans will buy their products no matter what, even when there are better, cheaper and higher quality items for sale. Google is software that is free to use where people like it because of the simplicity it gives them when using it, not buying it. I bet there are plenty of people who, given no prior experience, would look at Yahoo and Google side by side and think that Yahoo must be better.

    • anthony

      Sep 21st, 2010

      Actually, I think you missed the point. The article does not dispute the fact that people are drawn to complex products during first impressions. It disputes the claim that the majority of users are like this for all products.

      There are exceptions and they should be considered and analyzed so that a deeper understanding can be reached. All of it is in the article. Read the article.

  14. Steve

    Sep 20th, 2010

    You claim that it’s the challenge to the designer to work with complexity and make it easy to use. I agree, sort of. For a certain set of features there is a certain inherent degree of complexity. I say it’s the challenge to the designer to avoid adding extra unnecessary complexity.

    The point is that when people try to magic away the inherent complexity, they make things far worse. All those “intelligent” interfaces that stubbournly refuse to do what you want because they’ve “intelligently” decided you must want something else, for example.

  15. Michael Fever

    Sep 20th, 2010

    I prefer simplicity – less coding!! =)

  16. Keld Ølykke

    Sep 21st, 2010

    “Features win over simplicity, even when people realize that it is accompanied by more complexity,” is what Don Norman states in his “Simplicity is Highly Overrated” article.’

    ‘He explains that users say they want simplicity in products, but they don’t really mean it. Instead, what they really want are features, “even if the features confuse more than they help.”

    Usability and user experience design is all about making things simple and easy to use. I never would’ve expected such a contradictory statement…..”

    What contradiction? People SAY they want something simple and easy to use, but they BUY something else.

  17. AhHatem

    Sep 21st, 2010

    What features should be in any product is a business decision that have nothing to do with the user experience and should be taken far before there is a product and is usually taken by the business analyst or manager or whoever based on the target audience, competitive products… etc…. it is a purely 100% business decision.

    Putting those features in a product that is easy to use and understandable is the problem of the UI and usability designer(s), he should take the time to design, redesign and fine tune the User experience till it fits the quality needed on both levels: the ease of use and that product is polished enough to empress the users.

    Features should not be removed nor added based on anything related to UI.

  18. Susan Tait

    Oct 3rd, 2010

    I haven’t seen a discussion on the relationship of simplicity to clarity. I suggest that they aren’t the same. I’ll use my DSLR camera for an example: it wasn’t simple to use, necessarily, but it was a model of clarity. I always knew what I didn’t know, and what the controls did not make clear, the documentation did.

    The clarity of the information design was more important than the lack of simplicity, because “lack of simplicity” to me meant the plethora of features I didn’t care about, but could ignore without affecting my immediate objectives. In other words, I could cleanly segregate my learning experiences with new techniques from my production experiences in creating the images I wanted.

  19. Aviral Mittal

    Dec 6th, 2010

    Hi Anthony,

    I think that most of the people here have misunderstood your point because it seems like that most of us still can’t accept the fact that design is as important as any other feature, but they just don’t count it as one!
    But one thing that you have clearly missed here is that generally people justify the price of a product with the number of features and they rarely count ease of use and design as essential parts(many).
    I believe that Apple has done a tremendous job in making people realise this thing.
    In fact, the whole business model of Apple is to make things simpler and yet give all the features that the consumer can demand. They will give only the most essential things that you can want initially in the phone(or any other product) and then you can download apps(read features) as per your requirement. You control what you want! It is as simple as that. And I can clearly see here that just because you mentioned Apple here, some people just couldn’t digest it.
    Well, what can I say…. these people are direct descendants of those who said that the earth is flat :P

    • anthony

      Dec 7th, 2010

      People generally do justify the price of a product with the number of features. The whole point of the article was not to dispute that fact, but to include the exception case of when users have their needs clearly defined they generally choose the simpler product.

  20. [...] spesso accade che si confondano le funzionalità con la loro usabilità. Il design con la progettazione. Quello che un prodotto potrebbe fare, quali desideri potrebbe [...]

  21. Josh

    Aug 1st, 2011

    My favorite products are ones that have few visible adjustments on the outside, but the potential to tweak the chrome below if the user has the desire to.

  22. Remko Vermeulen

    Aug 26th, 2013

    Both are perfectly valid and should be applied, but some parts at different moments of the user journey.

    At the point of purchase and actual use, the product is valued in different ways. From various user research we did at Electrolux, I learned that your product should have at least the (important) features of the competitors to be included in the comparison.

    What often is lacking is just adding features without actually knowing if there is a lot of demand for them. First step is to measure which features are in demand and which ones not (and kick them out).

    I remember a usability test where we benchmarked our product against others and after asking the price of each product, one reply (of a product with a medium usability score) was: “This one must be the most expensive, as it looks like it has most options”.

    When someone starts using your product the simplicity comes in. Based on the experience people will love/hate your product, refer it to others and actually use it in their day to day.

    For example: In my company, they implemented SAP for expenses. At the point of purchase it must have looked great, but after people (different than the person that bought it) actually had to use it, a near-revolution broke out as it is such a pain to use.

    For designers the big challenge is to be able to combine the point of purchase checklist with ease of use. Isn’t that our job and what makes it so nice?

    Giles Colborne wrote a great book “Simple and Usable” that goes through various ways to do so.

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