Simplicity is exactly what?

Complexity is uncool.  Everybody keeps telling me that. 

I’ve just read an interesting post over at Parallax.  In this post  Niel discusses how some clever chaps in the consumer space have developed some really simple tools to do neat photo manipulations.

I noted that this was like taking 0.1% of the functionality of Photoshop and making it understandable by 99.9% of the population.

He comments.

When it comes to Web 2.0, providing less features to a broader audience may actually be more valuable

He suggests that the same may  happen in the enterprise space…

I’d just finished that when  serendipity arrived in my inbox.  Mike Tschudy, a colleague of mine based in Palo Alto, forwarded me this post from Joel  Spolsky of  Fog Creek Software.

long time ago, I wrote: “A lot of software developers are seduced by the old ‘80/20’ rule. It seems to make a lot of sense: 80% of the people use 20% of the features. So you convince yourself that you only need to implement 20% of the features, and you can still sell 80% as many copies.

“Unfortunately, it’s never the same 20%. Everybody uses a different set of features. In the last 10 years I have probably heard of dozens of companies who, determined not to learn from each other, tried to release ‘lite’ word processors that only implement 20% of the features. This story is as old as the PC.

He goes on (actually just go and read the whole post..)

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.”

If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as “Southampton WASP,” fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means “not very many features” or “does one thing and does it well,” then I applaud your integrity but you can’t go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out. Even the iPod has gratuitous Solitaire game. Even Ta-da List supports RSS.

Somehow I need to reconcile this with the complexity culture discussion.

I guess I’ll use this again…

 Einstein said it best, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 

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4 thoughts on “Simplicity is exactly what?”

  1. “The irony in our current market is that the big SOA platforms end up driving not a technology shift that fuels a new wave of growth, but a business model shift as a result of the decoupling of a tightly integrated suite of applications into a loosely coupled repository of services.”

    The 80/20 rule was a result of economics that drove product packaging. In a world where websites with nothing but a few features are successful it’s hard to not observe that suite packaging may not be so relevant anymore. This was my point.

    Lastly, simplicity is always a perception relative to what you had before. Apple is simple because Microsoft is not… from a user perspective. Right or wrong, that is the image that sticks because Apple products consistently work well rather than are simple or easy to use.

  2. I’m not 100% happy with the Apple comparison, Jeff – Apple products are simple to use because they are *designed* with usability in mind, whereas MS products favor APIs over GUI. They are even better than the previous good example, which used to be Sony.
    OTOH, I don’t think SOA will be simple any time soon (at least not if used for anything serious)

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