[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.
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 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 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.