Keep it Simple… Kind of.

Simplicity vs. Features

Many of us have come across the KISS principle at some point in our lives. The KISS principle is basically an acronym for “Keep It Simple Stupid”. This principle goes hand and hand with Occam’s razor which is often summarized as “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best”.

These ideas can be brought into usability and design in multiple facets, but are primarily valuable in the area of feature creep. Added features can become added complexities to a design. It is important to keep a solid focus on the end goal for what you are designing, to make sure that the bells and whistles or added features, don’t get in the way of the primary task.

Occam’s razor reminds us to introduce the least number of assumptions possible. It is important not to assume you know what the user wants and not to assume that they want every cool feature you can build. Instead choose a design that uses the fewest assumptions and take advantage of user research and usability testing when deciding on additional features to add if any.

Simple design allows users to find information and perform tasks faster. As Steve Krug says, in his book Don’t Make me Think, “Cut out half the words, and then cut out half of what’s left”. 

Most people put on their ADD cap when using the web, and the more hoops they have to jump through to get to the point, the quicker they’ll lose interest and go elsewhere. Internally, there is also benefit, less features means more time for your design and development teams to focus and improve the core product offerings. Apple is a classic example of focusing on fewer product offerings to provide a greater value with each product.

Simplicity vs. Sales

But is it really a lack of features that users are drawn to? According to Donald Norman in his essay Simplicity Is Highly Overrated, people do want features, and it makes a big difference at the point of sale. “Simplicity is a myth” he states. People don’t want to pay more for something that appears to do less. Therefore emphasis on features is most important for the sale. He postulates that people (especially in the Asian culture) want the attention that multiple features bring as a symbol of status. This is because more features typically equate to more expensive merchandise with more substance. Therefore what people are really looking for is something that appears complex but is easy to use.

Luke Wroblewski quotes a Harvard Business Review in his article The Sweet Spot for Buying, that states “Before using a product, people will judge its desirability and quality based on ‘what it does’ (i.e. the number of features)…” The quote then continues with the theory that after purchase, people tend to put less emphasis on features, instead judging the product more on its ease of use and value.

This theory reiterates Don Norman’s article concluding that while people are initially more attracted to products that advertise a lot of features, they ultimately want those features to be simple and easy to use. It usually isn’t until the user or buyer has learned the lesson of hard to use feature overloaded products that they begin to seek simplicity.

Some companies have managed to successfully include both simplicity and features. Aside from the obvious Apple example, another example is the Swedish based IKEA company. They manage to cultivate this paradigm by creating simple yet functional furniture, with features, at a low price. For example their Tylosand sofas have several features, that’s right, a sofa with features. The pieces can be easily detached and rearranged, combined or separated, pillows can be come footstools or the sofa can become multiple chairs, hidden pieces can be pulled out and the sofa becomes a bed. This makes it an extremely useful and functional piece of furniture for someone in a loft or small apartment with limited space, yet its design is so simplistic its appears as no more than a simple square style couch to the unknowing onlooker.

In conclusion, to get a happy customer, focus first and foremost on a core product that works well. Ease of use will maximize the customers lifetime with the product. Then, with research, focus on some appealing yet simple additional features or ‘delights’ as Jarrod Spool might call them, additions that will not only help at the point of sale, but continue to please the user after purchase. Avoid assumptions, and feature creep, especially if it starts to impact the core goal and usability of your product.

Side Note:

I think it’s important to mention that simplicity and features, as with everything, balance is key. Its all about finding that sweet spot, or happy medium. Taking simplicity to an extreme can turn it into a negative. For example, separating a task on to 5 separate pages to make each page appear less cluttered and allow for more white space just forces the user to rely more on their spatial memory and can break the user’s concentration and flow. Don’t use 5 pages when 2 will do, just don’t try to shove it all into 1 page with 10 ads and a cool tool either.