Simplicity Complex

Over the past few days, I've observed an isolated thunderstorm in my RSS reader. The first hints began when Don Norman blogged "Simplicity is Highly Overrated". Norman writes:

"Marketing rules – as it should, for a company that ignores marketing is a company soon out of business. Marketing experts know that purchase decisions are influenced by feature lists, even if the buyers realize they will probably never use most of the features. Even if the features confuse more than they help."

It wasn't long before the infamous Joel on Software picked up on Don's post -- and that's when the slashdotting began.

After an obligitory "I've been talking about this for years" disclaimer, Joel made a priceless clarification:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.” For example, the iPod has the feature of being beautiful, which the Creative Zen Ultra Nomad Jukebox doesn't have, so I'll take an iPod, please. In the case of the iPod, the way beauty is provided happens to be through a clean and simple design, but it doesn't have to be. The Hummer is aesthetically appealing precisely because it's ugly and complicated.

These arguments are indeed true, but as someone who spends his days designing web applications I'm less than convinced that these observations apply to me. 

A web app is neither a washing machine, nor a piece of enterprise grade software.

The dynamics that Don and Joel discuss revolve around a model where a consumer buys a product before they get a chance to really "use" it. When you buy a car, for example, you will typically take a test drive. Though you get to try out a car during a test drive, its difficult to conclude much more than "gee, this car feels better to drive than my 1979 Gremlin". The real meat of a car's 'user experience' slowly emerges over years. For example, you find out that a car's cupholders are crap, and find out that you are consistantly doomed to spilling your 64 ounce Big Gulp on the floor every time you break. Or, you discover that the back of your car makes a fine place 'to sleep' when you put the back seats down. With every product in this category, the consumer basically accepts that they can't guess what its going to be like using the product over years. Thus, we buy cars and washing machines on account of features Vs. budget.

I will spare the reader from remaking this point with Microsoft Excel Professional edition as the subject, instead of a car. 


Web applications are entirely different.  This is firstly because  users won't typically pay to use them. Actually, most of the time, a web app's business model is advertisers pay for a chance to distract your users. So obviously, you want more users with web apps -- however, its unlikely the path to more users is going to be a 4 page feature list. 

With web applications, you assume that your potential users will stumble on your application -- as opposed to looking at a matrix of similar web applications on consumer reports, and making a careful decision as to which application to use. Only a few hundred freaks found, flickr, or myspace after carefully weighing them against competing services. Most of us just stumpled on those and thought, "gee, this looks cool... I think I'll try to use this."  

Its More than Less is More

What I've found is that less is not more with web applications. Rather, it seems that applications with less to learn (at first), gain more users. Like dating, the critical period that determines your success with a user is likely to be within the first 5 minutes. So, from my standpoint, simplicity is better not because its "simple", but because a simple application requires little or no thought to make use of. 

For web applications -- especially the social ones -- features are big time important. The key is ensuring that your users aren't bombarded with these features until after they've grown comfortable with the basics. You have a blog application? Great! Make setting up a blog two clicks and immediately direct them to the "create a new post" page. Once they've submitted their first post, they might decide to check out the "my settings" page for your 7 part full featured customization page.

That's really all the thought I can muster on this for now. I guess the lesson is keep it simple for the first 5 minutes, but don't assume your users are simple...  ...stupid.