As simple as possible, as complex as necessary

Too simple

28 March 2012

I'm generally an admirer of products that are simple to use, but the other day I came across an example of simplicity gone ever so slightly mad.

Having spent the night at a B&B, we were enjoying our cooked breakfast when I felt a little seasoning was in order and reached for the pepper mill.

Twisting it had no effect and on closer inspection I noticed the outlet appeared to be at the top. OK, I thought, a sensible, mess-on-the-table preventing design feature, even if it requires the extra step of inverting the mill.

On doing so, however, I nearly dropped the thing into my plate, as all of sudden it started screeching loudly and spitting out pepper. My first encounter with an automatic, "gravity-operated" motorised grinder.

Simplicity is in the mind

I'm sure if you owned one of these gadgets you'd soon become accustomed to the simplicity of having freshly milled seasoning with less effort than required to tip and shake a pre-ground pepper pot.

However public catering establishments should think twice before assuming their customers' mental model of a pepper mill will prepare them for such behaviour. The vast majority will expect to twist and grind, so hoteliers would do well to provide pepper mills which meet that expectation.

I was reminded of the example of over-simplification given by Giles Colborne in his book Simple and Usable: the buttonless lift (elevator) found in the Apple Store in Ginza, Japan, which stops for set intervals on every floor. Acceptable on underground trains but not in lifts, which people expect to be able to control.

It's about control

What would be examples of over-zealous simplification in the world of web design and development? One that comes to mind is the use of javascript or the target attribute to force links to open in a new browser window or tab. Fortunately this has become such a usability "no-no" that it is much less common than it used to be, but occasionally clients do ask for it on the pretext that it will "help" visitors by keeping the previous page open. This will of course leave many people puzzled as to why their precious Back button no longer works, while even those who do realise what has happened will be annoyed at not being given a choice.

Just as with the pepper mill and the lift, by over-simplifying in this way you remove not only complexity, but vital control as well.

Simplicity should always be the direction of travel, but depending on the context, a certain degree of complexity is usually needed. Understanding users' mental models - particularly in terms of the control they expect to have - is key to knowing where to draw the line beyond which simple becomes too simple.


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