Simple is not as simple as it seems

The goal of making products "simple" is not simple at all. Products like the iPhone, the Wii, and the Flip camcorder all take different approaches to simplicity.

Adam Richardson
Adam Richardson is the director of product strategy at frog design, where he guides strategy engagements for frog's international roster of clients, envisioning and creating new products, consumer electronics, and digital experiences. Adam combines a background in industrial design, interaction design, and sociology, and spends most of his time on convergent designs that combine hardware, software, service, brand, and retail. He writes and speaks extensively on design, business, culture, and technology, and runs his own Richardsona blog.
Adam Richardson
3 min read

An article in the New York Times says customers are being more attracted to "simple" products:

And, as it turns out, the buyers of consumer electronics could very well have been a leading economic indicator. Over the last year, they chose to buy two inexpensive and simple products, the Wii and the Flip, over competing gadgets bristling with more features.

But the article conflates two different definitions of "simple"

  • Doing a focused function or small number of functions (i.e. it's "simple in what it does")
  • Being easy and intuitive to use (i.e. it "simple to use")

The article cites a number of examples including the Wii, the iPhone, the Flip camcorder, and the Sonos multi-room music system. These products represent a spectrum of the different meanings of simple, but the article conflates them all together as though they were equivalent. If you're making decisions about how to approach a new product design, this is a very dangerous thing to do.

The Flip camcorder is very simple in what it does. It has removed all but the most essential functions of being a video camera, which has a knock-on effect that it is easy to use just because there is very little to learn about.

The iPhone is far simpler to use than any other smartphone out there, but it is very complex in what it does. With the App Store, that complexity grows every day. Indeed, if Apple had come out with a greatly de-featured smartphone, it would not have been a smartphone at all.

The Wii is not significantly easier to to set up or less complex than the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3, but they have put their emphasis on a different kind of game play than the "technical" type of games with steep learning curves that tend to dominate on the other platforms. This makes it easier to get started with playing the games themselves.

Which brings us to an important point: at the same time these devices are removing things, they are adding others. In the case of Flip it faciliates spontaneous use in a way that traditional large and expensive and complicated camcorders do not, and it can be customized with a very cool website to make it more of a fashion accessory. The iPhone added a new interface paradigm with its multi-touch, gesture-based touchscreen, and was able to push back the layered complexity that the wireless carriers tend to impose. The Wii brought joy back to video games with control accessories that use physical movement beyond one's thumbs, and which encourage more personal collaboration and competition than one gets from a first-person-shooter.

These additions have allowed the products to open up new market opportunities and reach customers that have stayed away from less convention gadgets in each category. But it's not just the removal of things to make the devices simple that's achieves this, at least as important is the judicious addition of evocative capabilities.

Sonos is in some ways is a counter-example: It's well designed and much simpler to use than the usual cobbled-together solutions for get multi-room audio using a PC as a music source. If simple was all it took to appeal, then they should have done much better. In fact it took additional complexity -- creating an iPhone app that allowed the iPhone to replace Sonos' custom-built remote (which also contains a scroll wheel and a color LCD, not unlike an iPod -- to goose sales, according to the article.

The common denominator throughout all of these is ease of use, and a new twist on the experience of using the product. But don't make the mistake of thinking that "simple" just means removing functionality. Sometimes that's appropriate, but other times it's exactly the wrong thing to do.

NY Times article