The Psychology of Simple Design

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…

Great design should be experienced first, and seen second. 

img - virtual

This is because design should be instinctive and simple, where they’re seamless to our own unique world. They’re familiar to us. For the first time. And, well, every time. Without explanation.

But why?

Because we’re surrounded by beauty, order, and simplicity in the world around us. From humans to nature to the heavens. Whether we know it or not, it’s there.

We see it. Breathe it. Hear it. Taste it. Experience it.

While we may not be able to explain the profound complexity behind these integrated systems, we can experience it. And these experiences provide meaning and value.

img - nature math sunflower

And from these elemental building blocks of life, we derived our cities and infrastructure, business, government, education, and even our technology.

And because of this… we humans are hard-coded to appreciate beauty, order, and simplicity from our experiences – including with digital products – along with meaning and value.

quote - leonardo da vinci simplicity is the utlimate sophistication

Without it, we struggle to adapt and learn a new digital experience, and ultimately decide the bad experience is not worth the mental anguish and move onto another one.

But simple isn’t easy. Far from it.

So let’s look at the reasons behind the difficulty of designing simple experiences…

 

Reason #1: Simple is Harder Than Complex

This isn’t just a fancy Steve Jobs quote.

Ok, it is. You got me.

But there’s a vast amount of knowledge, skill, and experience behind Steve’s quote…

quote - steve jobs on simplicity and focus

In my humble opinion, what Steve is really saying here is that it takes longer to develop simple solutions due to the extraordinary amount of iteration involved in the development process (and therefore it’s much more expensive). Additionally, simplicity demands myriad teams with incredible talents, and the best thinking from extraordinary thinkers (who can think differently).

Not to mention an unrelenting focus of these teams on solving specific problems, combined with a duality of convergent and divergent thinking. And it requires the right leaders with the capability to develop the brilliant visions to drive these teams towards the development of a simple solution.

So yeah, simple is much harder than complex.

 

Reason #2: Humans Love Complexity

So we discovered that simple is harder than complex, and now it turns out that humans are hardwired to reward complexity.

But wait, I thought you just said we’re hardwired to prefer beauty, order, and simplicity?

img - humans love complexity

Yes, it’s true that humans appreciate those things, but our brains actually reward complexity. This is called complexity bias, and it occurs in the pursuit of new things. Bright shiny objects. New friends, apps, widgets, and on and on. Companies have made trillions of dollars based on this basic concept, aka consumerism.

However, a critical element we should recognize in our pursuit of new things, is that we learn. Because on the flipside of complexity, simplicity has a calming effect on us, but doesn’t reward us… unless of course, we’re learning and achieving.

 

Reason #3: Humans Hate Loss

Whether it’s the loss of friend or lover, money, or a favorite shirt or watch. It’s all the same to us in that we mourn these losses. Our brains view this as a negative, and we have emotional responses that are twice as strong as the reward from a gain.

img - loss aversion

Simplicity often involves taking something – or many things – away, and we don’t like that. Our brain treats this as a loss. Until, well, we forget about it in our pursuit of something new.

 

Reason #4: We Don’t Fully Understand Ourselves Or Our Environment

Humans are highly-complex creatures living in a highly-complex world, that only seems to get crazier and crazier each year. We have a limited view of ourselves and the world we live in, mainly because both are based on some extraordinary science that most of us don’t know about and/or understand. Except the ~1% of us who are scientists.

And I still haven’t met a designer who moonlights as a scientist.

img - people and earth

Because of this, we can’t fully predict the often irrational behavior of humans. I mean, how did MySpace lose 100 million users to an almost identical solution, i.e. Facebook?

We also can’t predict how our Earth will behave when we slowly destroy it with pollution, destruction, and overpopulation. The Earth reacts with global warming, flooding, drought, and now pandemics?

So if we can’t fully understand and/or predict our own behaviors and that of our natural environment, then how do we create beautiful and simple digital experiences that users will love?

 

Reason #5: Simple Requires Taking Extraordinary Risks

Navigating all of the previous 4 reasons requires an extraordinary amount of risk:

  • Risk of misunderstanding users’ wants & needsimg - high risk
  • Risk of designing something too complicated
  • Risk of building the wrong product
  • Risk of wasting time due to failure
  • Risk of the loss of money due to failure

Humans have become much more risk adverse now than just 100 years ago, mainly because we have much more to lose in the pursuit of our dreams. Because of that, we tend to gravitate towards things that are familiar to us. Things that are safe. Reliable. Like a steady 9-5 job versus a risky startup.

Tell me this, would you risk it all?

 

Conclusion

Creating something beautiful and simple without losing the essence of your idea is extremely difficult, if not seemingly impossible.

The crux of problem around creating simple solutions is that designers – in collaboration with product teams – have the difficult task of trying to translate real-world objects, behaviors, and interactions into digital experiences that solve important user problems and are easy to use.

There’s an art to making the overly complex seem simple.

As the brilliant Sir Jonathan Ive once said, “I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity; in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation It’s about bringing order to complexity.”

quote - jonathin ive profound and enduring beauty in simplicity

Clarity of communication. Optimization of processes. Solving complex problems. Finding that perfect analogy that everyone easily recognizes.

These come from practicing great design. Not being satisfied with good, but striving for great and then awesome. It takes experimentation. A willingness to try and fail.

And try again!

 

Leave a Reply