Monday, December 11, 2006

Simpler Tasks, Not Simple Systems

According to Donald Norman, simplicity is overrated. And he's right, faced with a choice of anonymous white boxes costing roughly the same people will buy the system with the most functionality. How else are they going to choose? Less buttons, less functions, appears to offer less value for money.

And that's what Don has missed. The problem here is not simplicity, but the ways in which simplicity is presented to the casual consumer. There is a default assumption within the usability field that simplicity is about less, in much the same way that there is a default assumption that accessibility is about inferior users. Is it any surprise then that simplicity doesn't sell?

Think for a moment about why people buy technology:

  1. They have a task, which they believe the technology will address (washing, taxes, email, cleaning).
  2. There is an experience that they believe this technology will afford (iPod, plasma screens, or home computers).

Task Orientated

So considering task-orientated technology. There are three possible scenarios:

  • The purchase is replacing a technology (such as a vacuum cleaner) with something broadly similar.
  • They are upgrading to a new technology (e.g. cordless phones replacing wired phones).
  • They are buying technology to address a new task.

In the first scenarios, usability will only be a conscious consideration if the thing they are replacing is too complex. When replacing a VCR, customers would often try and find one which was easy to program. This became part of the desired feature set. However, if the old system was not perceived as too complex/hard to use, this is unlikely to be the case. Usability is therefore something that you think about when it goes wrong; functionality is fore grounded by the design of the system (how many buttons it has in the case of white goods; the description of functionality in the case of software).

The second scenario is broadly similar, except that one reason for upgrading may be to replace a complex technology (the VCR) with a simpler one (the Tivo). Again, complexity will be something that the customer will only think within a framework defined by their experiences of their old technology (failing to record programs, because they didn’t set the timer on the VCR). So they will not be looking for complexities introduced by the new technology.

In the final scenario, the buyer doesn't know how they will use the technology. They don't know which functions are necessary. Given that they are buying blind, they will (assuming prices are roughly equivalent) buy the system that offers them the greatest possible flexibility. The system with the most functionality appears to be the system that we will be least likely to replace in six months time for being inadequate.

Simplicity in isolation is unlikely to be a selling point for most users. However, when simplicity is integrated into the tasks that the device can do, it becomes a different matter. One of the selling points for the Dyson was that it got rid of the bag, thus simplifying the use of the system. It wasn't marketed as a cut down system, or a system offering less functions; merely as a system which would make a chore slightly easier.

Similarly, who wouldn't want to buy a tax package that halved the amount of time to file your taxes? Whereas a system which doesn't offer X&Y functions makes me wonder what I will do if I need those functions (no matter how unlikely). The first offers me something positive the second provides me with something to worry about.

Experience Orientated

In the case of something acquired for the experience it affords, things are a little different. Simplicity of design can become part of the feature set, but it does so through visual design and marketing.

Consider the iPod:

  • Elegant, whereas many of its competitors and predecessors are visually choked with buttons.
  • Transparent and forgettable; as it does not clutter the experience, it allows the user to focus on the music.

However, while the iPod is transparent and forgettable, this is not a feature you can test in a store. It is only through continuous use, that this "feature" becomes apparent. So how did customers in a shop know about these features? They didn't. Nobody bought an iPod because it was transparent and forgettable. They bought it because it looked good, and because the adverts emphasised the ways in which it would transform the musical experience. Whereas the technology, the interface? Forget about it. People continued to buy it, because friends emphasised how much they liked owning it, how good their experience of it was.


You can't sell simplicity, any more than you can sell usability. However you can sell something which improves the user's experience. So rather than focus on building a simple system, think instead about how simplicity will improve it. How does complexity of competing systems interfere with the user's experience, how will the simplicity of your system improve it. Consumers don't want simpler, or usable, systems - they want better systems.

And for the casual buyer who doesn't read consumer reports doesn't have any friends and who hates shopping? Think how can the visual design draw them in and make them desire your system? It’s always easier to make a simple system stylish.


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