Simple is really really hard

Rob Borley
on 19 February 2013

One of the most famous quote of the late Steve Jobs is a mantra that is widely regarded as the driving force behind much of Apple’s success in recent years.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Simplicity of process, simplicity of design, and simplicity of build all come together to provide the user with a experience that just works. This is something that has characterised Apple products, and the iPhone in particular, but designing and building something that is simple to understand and use takes a lot of effort. It’s really hard to do.

Mobile has encourage simplicity

In this post-PC era where mobility rules, simplicity has been forced upon us. This is a good thing as it’s something that most were unwilling or unable to adopt off of their own backs. Years of bloated and unusable desktop software are a testament to that fact. A new feature or great new idea was simply bolted onto the existing package. The end result of this process is software that can do more. Of course, this has to be a good thing; doesn’t it?

The arrival of the smartphone brought this to a grinding halt. The small screen, the lower technical spec, the different (touch) interface, and the transient nature of the user all combined to demand an approach of far greater simplicity.

The £0.69 app turned software into a consumable. If, when a user launches your product for the first time, it’s not instantly obvious how to use it and that it solves their problem then the user deletes and moves on to something else. And as we close in on 1 million apps in the Apple app store there are plenty of alternatives to try.

Apps are growing in complexity

The temptation is constantly to slip back into old ways. After putting all of your powers into developing a simple piece of software with a zero learning curve the product owner will often return and ask for a new piece of functionality.

Implementing this request may well be straight forward. But this can be disastrous. Putting in the time to think through the implications and design the simplest possible solution takes effort.

The app store is littered with disastrous app updates. Successful apps that, following the release of the latest and greatest UI or a fantastic new feature, have been burned by the reviewing user base and crashed out of favour as a result.

The recently released update to the Ocado app is a wonderful example of this. The description heralds the wonders of it’s new features.

Ocado for iPhone description

Ocado for iPhone description

The reviews tell a quite different story.

Ocado for iPhone reviews

Ocado for iPhone reviews

More is not better

It’s an old news story really but be aware. More is not always better. In fact, the opposite is more often true.

When designing apps ask the following questions:

  1. Is this feature really necessary?
  2. Does a user need any instruction to get their task completed? Is it obvious?

Users will not read the manual. Users will not contact support. Users will delete your app and try another service provider. You have been warned!

Rob is going to be discussing “Simplification: designing and building for mobile” at FOWD London 2013 why not pop along. Or, if you would like to have a chat about how Rob and Dootrix can help with your software project then get in touch.


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