Simplicity Is Not Merely The Absence Of Complexity

There is an ongoing conversation in the library profession about the need to make things – our web sites, our OPACs, our databases – more simple. Simple is good. Pondering how the library profession finds a balance between simplicity and complexity has been an interest of mine for a number of years now. In several of my past talks I’ve made mention of the simplicity-complexity conundrum which challenges academic librarians. In a nutshell, the research process and library research databases (and using them) offer some inherent complexity, yet we dwell in a world where the quality of the user experience is often judged soley by its simplicity. How do we resolve the need for complexity with the desire for simplicity? I don’t quite have the answer, but I do like to read about this issue as it helps to better understand the issues.

So I was glad to come across an article from boxesandarrows titled “Simplicity: the Distribution of Complexity.” Author Rob Tannen offers his own views on the simplicity discussion, prompted by his reading of the John Maeda book The Laws of Simplicity (just 100 pages and well worth reading). Tannen’s argument is that it’s not possible to engineer simplicity into products by starting a pre-defined set of parameters (e.g., this webpage will only have 10 links and 1 search box). Rather his philosophy is that “true simplicity is determined by a set of decisions made during the design process that respect the nature of the subject being designed.” Sounds a bit nebulous, but Tannen provides some amplification with the primary focus on achieving simplicity by relocating or redistributing the complexity so that what’s left offers simplicity. 

*  Aim for redundancy in design over uniqueness. What functions are critical and should be made available to users in multiple locations? Make sure they are available in multiple locations so they are readily found.

*  Choose dedicated over multi-function controls. What are the features that users want to use immediately and repeatedly? Make that feature crystal clear to the user.

When making these decisions during the design process “user research methods (ethnographic approaches) guide design decisions for the appropriate balance and placement of simplicity…and the exposure of complexity to the end user.” The goal is to displace complexity so that it doesn’t detract from the users’ experience.

So can Tannen’s advice help librarians to resolve their own simplicity-complexity conundrum? I think it can help in two ways. First, we should be thinking about the simplicity-complexity balance during the design stage when developing web pages, instruction products or making interface choices. Where in the process can we relocate or redistribute the complexity? Second, we should accept that, as Madea writes, “some things can never be made simple.” We need to understand that our users will find some of our resources complex, and there may not be much we can do to design that complexity away. In such cases we may explore user education as a device for helping the user to overcome complexity. Accepting the inherent complexity of the research process and its associated resources may help us to stop debating whether we should simplify and how to simplify. Instead we should focus our efforts on the things we can do to design some simplicity, and stop wasting time on that which will never be made simple and instead focus our efforts on user education.


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