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Complexity is easy, simplicity is hard.

Complexity is easy, simplicity is hard.

We live in a world typified by spiralling complexity on one hand, and demand for effortless simplicity on the other.

As consumers, we all want the depth of functionality offered by the latest smartphone, but don’t want to work too hard to take advantage of it. Businesses are under pressure to deliver to standards that have been set by the world’s top tech. What online retailer doesn’t look at Amazon’s ‘Buy with 1–Click’ button and seethe with envy? Innovations that gain traction and adoption tend to be those that offer a simpler way to achieve a goal, which in turn raises the bar for everything that comes after it. So why can’t everything be simple?

Complexity is a fact of life. And in many contexts it is essential; some things are just inherently complex. Building a house, flying an aircraft, high–end 3–D animation as examples – all activities that require complex processes in order to return something of value. For most other things, on the web at least, things don’t have to be that way.

We contend with complexity every day and very often it is imposed because of business rules. Up–selling is an example; it’s a natural business activity, but one that immediately exposes tension between the organisation’s needs, and those of the user.

Booking a flight online recently I was asked seven superfluous questions that had nothing to do with the core task I was trying to complete. The questions related to travel insurance, car parking, car hire, additional luggage – lots of things in fact that generate additional revenue for the airline. But with each successive question I grew more weary, simply wanting to get finished and get on with my day.

Simplicity, complexity and value are in a constant three–way tussle. How do we offer value while offering increased simplicity? Some offerings tend to be complex in order to infer value – think bad enterprise software.

There was a time when electrical stores (showing my age here) set up their hi–fi unit sections (bear with me) with the greatest amount of shelf space dedicated to products with the most dials, buttons and LED indicators. Many of those products were designed specifically with more bells and whistles to suggest greater value to the consumer.

One of our favourite design gurus, Don Norman, proposed that every application features an amount of inherent complexity. The question then being who will deal with it – the user or the designer? By way of an answer to this conundrum, if it’s the user then the business will suffer. But with careful managing of complexity, the business benefits.

AirBnB have achieved huge success by recognising the inherent complexity involved in the process of renting rooms by people with disparate needs. They decided to deploy a better system – human interaction – to take care of the complexity. Now that’s innovation.

Much of user interface design seeks only to ask “how can we make this complex process more visually engaging for the user?”. While visual appeal is a vital initial step in overall engagement, the deeper challenge that UX seeks to address is: “how can we reduce complexity before this even gets to the user?”.

Inherent complexity is a raw material for user–centred design. One of the first actions on any project should be to identify the source of potential complexity, then begin to find ways it can be worked with, worked out, or otherwise managed.

And if the business is imposing needless complexity on an otherwise simple process? It’s time to rethink strategy. Simple.

By Rick Monro

Rick was UX Director at Fathom from 2014 to 2017, when he left to take up a role as Principal UX Architect at Puppet.

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