Do people want a simple life? Or do they want the complex life made simple?

A few years ago I read an article about the failure of Lively, Google's attempt at creating a virtual world / environment, similar to Second Life.

Lively was by all accounts really easy to use. But, "if you dumb something down far enough, very few people will actually want to use it," Tateru Nino, the author of the article wrote. He went on to introduce a concept called "necessary complexity."

"The idea here is that any interactive system has a certain amount of complexity, usually involving the number and type of tasks which can be performed," Nino wrote. "Obviously, it is detrimental if the interaction interface is more complicated than it needs to be. That just makes things harder."

"What's a little less obvious," Nino continued, "is that reducing the complexity of the interaction interface too far makes things harder as well. Either it makes it hard to perform the tasks, or it reduces the number of tasks which can be performed."

If you reduce the complexity of an environment too much you risk making it dull and boring. Why do some people leave small towns and go to big cities? Because there's more opportunity, more things to do, more complexity. They don't seek out the complexity per se. They seek the benefits of a complex environment.

A simple environment has 2 tasks. A complex environment has 100 tasks. Making a complex environment as simple as possible is our challenge.

Let's say 5 of the tasks in the 100 task environment are top tasks. To make these really easy we will inevitably have to increase the complexity of the other 95 tasks. Or we could remove 50 of those tasks. What impact will that have? How many tasks does the environment require in order to be truly useful? These are difficult questions to answer. But that's what makes our lives interesting.

Will Sawyer teaches students at Bilkent University how to design processors. He has four design rules:


  1. Simplicity favors regularity.
  2. Smaller is faster.
  3. Make the common case fast.
  4. Good design demands good compromises.

I particularly like the third design rule, "make the common case fast." I would adapt it to say, "make the top task fastest." And that then connects up with the fourth rule about making good compromises --because, to make the top task fastest, you inevitably have an impact on the tiny tasks.

Let's say you have five tasks: A, B, C, D, E, with "A" being a top task. If you want to make A fastest to do, then you need to make it really easy to find, really easy to navigate through. To do this you will need to spend considerable time.

To make A easy to find through search means making sure that pages connected with B, C, D and E do not appear in the search results for A-type searches. (Remember, half of quality search management is knowing what you DON'T want to get found for a particular search.)

Everything you do to make A simpler creates often unintended complexities for other tasks. It's a balancing act and you get the balance right through continuous testing and rapid iterations.