UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 541 July 6, 2010

The Dirtiest Word in UX: Complexity

It’s hard to read anything about UX without finding a reference to the constant tension between simplicity and complexity. People have strong preconceived notions about the words, especially when it comes to experience design. You don’t have to be a UX practitioner to understand that simplicity is a good thing; no one goes around the office saying, "Alright team, let’s make this application really, really complex!"

Removing that layer of confusion to make the user's goals easy to achieve means making things simple and clear. However, removing confusion doesn't always mean removing complexity—it’s somewhat of a grey area. Sometimes complexity actually isn’t such a bad thing. In this article I'll examine some of the many faces of complexity and explore the balance we need to find for successful solutions.

Is Simplicity Overrated?

Although most people would say they seek simplicity in life and products, our actions say something different. We actually enjoy, and at times prefer, complex things. Imagine looking at a sky that's completely clear and compare that with a sunset with a variety of colors, layered with clouds, and the beams of sunlight striking the sky. One view would seem less interesting or not as photo-worthy.

In some cultures complex products are more appealing than products that appear simple. In South Korea, for example, products like refrigerators are designed to appear more complex than non-Korean ones, even when the prices and specifications are very similar, because that complexity is equated with sophistication and value, and is thus a symbol of prosperity.[1]

Simple vs. complex blender controls

Think about how we compare products when looking to make a purchase—we examine the features. Can this blender do the same things as this other blender, and more? A "simple" blender might seem like it doesn't do as much as a similarly priced one with fewer controls, making it perceptively less valuable to consumers. Even if the simplicity is intended to make the device easier to use, if it diminishes the consumer’s sense of the blender’s value and the manufacturer’s ability to sell it, then simplicity in this case is bad.

For example, Siemens released a smart washer with sensors that can detect the amount of laundry, the kind of fabric, and the soil level. There were only two program settings, and the machine would take care of the rest. This means the washer’s control panel could be very simple, but in fact Siemens designed it to have more controls than their other non-automated washers. Even when manufacturers find ways to simplify complex processes, it seems people don’t want to give up control and don't necessarily trust the automation, and manufacturers don’t want to downplay the apparent sophistication of their products.[1]

The Appearance of Complexity

In design and UX, a simple-looking approach generally receives more praise than a complex-looking one. Google is often held up as an exemplar of simplicity. Even though the back-end workings of Google are incredibly complex, a search engine’s UI inherently lends itself to simplicity; the interface doesn't require much in the way of controls or content. Simplicity of use sometimes is confused with taking a minimalist approach in the UI design.

Comparing the context and purpose to other sites reveals more about the apparent simplicity of Google. Google is a search engine whereas Yahoo! and MSN are Web directories—two different types of tool that require two different approaches to the UI.[2]Donald Norman explains why these other tools seem more complex than Google:

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use. Not because they are complex, but because they simplify the life of their users by letting them see their choices on the home page: news, alternative searches, other items of interest.[3]

The appearance of simplicity in physical products can also be deceptive. Consider ice skates or a guitar; it’s obvious from their appearance how they’re meant to be used. But it takes years to learn to use them well. Their lack of controls and few moving parts decreases their apparent complexity, but actually means they’re more complex to operate. A jump in ice skating or strumming a melody on a guitar requires a complex range of actions on the part of the user.[4]

If your UI even vaguely resembles an airplane cockpit, yo're doing it wrong - John Gruber

As John Gruber of Daring Fireball said, "If your UI even vaguely resembles an airplane cockpit, you’re doing it wrong."[5] The cockpit of an airplane certainly is as complex-looking as interfaces can get. When we see an interface or product that appears complex, we assume it must be difficult to use. But to assume that a complex-looking interface means it is difficult to use disregards the goal and tasks involved that a user may require of the interface.

Presenting Information

How information is presented in the UI is an important consideration. There are two important concepts presented by Edward Tufte that relate to how we present the visual layer of interface:[6]

Adjacent in Space vs. Stacked in Time

Adjacent in space is taking elements of an application and positioning them all on the same screen. Depending on the information and number of features an application has, it can make the screen appear more, or less, complex. An airplane cockpit is an extreme example of this approach. It makes all of the controls readily available to pilots and keeps critical readouts and important data ready at hand to help pilots make quick decisions. The adjacent in space UI approach gives more immediate power and control. It also reduces the need for navigation between screens to reach additional functionality, speeding up interactions.

Stacked in time is splitting the functionality up into several screens or layers, like a story being spread across pages in a book rather than crammed into a single long page. This approach can reduce the chance of the users making a mistake by guiding them down clear path. It also offers a gradual engagement, showing and hiding controls so only the necessary UI/information is displayed, reducing the perceptive complexity of the UI. It can allow more screen space for feedback and guidance for the user, and can allow for a more aesthetically pleasing and/or branded experience. The stacked in time approach tends to make an application less intimidating and doesn't overwhelm the user with choices.

The adjacent in space and stacked in time approaches each has its own trade-offs. In most cases placing too many elements on screen at the same time creates unnecessary complexity. Not all controls are needed at once, so they should only be presented when needed. However, a stacked in time approach also can become overwhelming to a user if not executed correctly. If the features aren't mapped in logical paths or are split across too many layers, users might not be able to quickly find what they need. This is especially apparent on smaller screens for devices.

When Less is More… Confusing

The amount of data that needs to be presented affects the perceived complexity of applications. When creating a UI, generally speaking, having as few elements as possible on screen is usually the best approach. Simplifying UIs by removing unneeded navigation and UI elements is important to creating focus. But in some cases, it’s more important to keep a higher level of information density. As Tufte explains, "Small screens, as on traditional cell phones, show very little information per screen, which in turn leads to deep hierarchies of stacked-up thin information—too often leaving users with ‘Where am I? puzzles. Better to have users looking over material adjacent in space rather than stacked in time."[7]

iPhone and Windows phone information resolution comparison

This need for balance was made clear in a recent comparison of the interfaces of the iPhone and the forthcoming Windows 7 Series Phone. Luke Wroblewski wrote up a comparison of the content resolution between the phones showing a significant difference in how much information each device displays at any given time. The Windows phone takes a more minimal approach with the UI, reducing the amount of content that can be displayed in one screen. In some cases, the Windows phone requires one or two extra steps (or taps) to get to the information, whereas the iPhone reveals it immediately because of its higher information density.

The navigation in an application should propel the user toward his goal rather than act as a barrier created just to satisfy an aesthetic requirement for a simpler-looking UI. Simplification in UI design should be focused on reducing "computer administrative debris" while keeping the focus of the interface on content and information.[8]

Using Training Wheels

Many applications are designed to cater to the first-time user by easing the initial learning curve (this is called "onboarding"). They offer a very guided experience, which is good for the beginning user. This guidance is typically presented by stacking content in time, which requires additional navigation interactions because fewer features and less information can be displayed on a single screen. There is also often contextual instructional content to make sure the path is clear.

But leaving these "training wheels" on too long makes the experience difficult or frustrating when users become more familiar with the application and require less guidance.

Consider the graphical user interface (GUI) of computers today. The GUI is an alternative to command-line interfaces, which power users are able to operate quickly but at the expense of having to memorize a lot of commands and parameters. GUIs, on the other hand, take advantage of users’ mental models to create applications that are intuitive and easy to learn. But this comes at the cost of efficiency and speed for power users.[9]

Recently, heads-up displays (HUDs) like Alfred and Quicksilver, which allow the user to skip window manipulation to quickly access files or applications, have become popular among power users. Apple has simplified the tablet OS by hiding much of the file metaphor on the iPad.

Using techniques like onboarding to simplify an experience are important, but should be carefully implemented. There should be consideration for the posture of the application or website. If the user is going to be using it often and for longer periods of time (sovereign), then the onboarding help should be able to be turned off or gradually be removed as the user grows. If users rarely visit and only for a short period (transient) this type of interface would continue to be helpful, rather than a hindrance.

Complex Tasks Are Complex

Simplicity allows many applications to be powerful. The UIs are not clouded with unnecessary controls. They are focused on specific tasks and don’t get in the way by forcing the user to do too much at once. There are some occasions, though, that the normal workflow for a particular set of users is complex. Therefore, it can be expected that the application that controls these types of tasks will be more complex.

In fact, a complex UI can sometimes be exactly what the user needs. For example, a dashboard that displays visualizations of large data sets can only ever be complex because its purpose is complex.

The cockpit analogy needs to be viewed from the perspective of a trained pilot. The complexity of this interface is necessary because the task of flying a plane is quite complex. One would not expect to be able to fly a 187,000 pound hunk of metal from one end of the globe to another with one button. Pilots would lose control of the system if it were heavily automated and the interface were highly abstracted. Removing all the controls and distilling them down too far for the sake of simplicity alone would come at a very high cost.

Living in a Complex World

As an interactive designer, my first instinct is to simplify things. There is beauty in a clean and functional interface. But through experience I’ve found that sometimes I can’t remove every piece of complexity in an application. The complexity may be unavoidably inherent to the workflow and tasks that need to be performed, or in the density of the information that needs to present. By balancing complexity and what the user needs, I have been able to continue to create successful user experiences.

In the end, simplicity for its own sake should not be the goal. Balancing the amount of complexity that we engage with is something that UX people deal with on a daily basis. A good experience should be the result of using UX design to find what is meaningful to that end user and present it in the best way possible. Donald Norman puts it best: "Complex things will require complexity. It is the job of the designer to manage that complexity with skill and grace."[10]


References
  1. Simlicity is Highly Overrated - Don Norman
  2. Google Says "More is More" - Luke Wroblewski
  3. The Truth About Google’s So Called "Simplicity" - Don Norman
  4. The Psychology of Everyday Things
  5. How Bad Is Bad? - Daring Fireball
  6. Learning from "bad" UI - 37Signals
  7. iPhone Interface Design - Edward Tufte
  8. Information Resolution on the Windows Phone 7 Series - Luke Wroblewski
  9. About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design - Alan Cooper
  10. Why is 37 Signals so arrogant? - Don Norman
Image Credits

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Contributing Editor, UX Magazine

Francisco Inchauste is a designer and a writer. You can connect with him on Twitter or visit his his industry recognized personal blog.

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Comments

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One of the many tasks I have here at About: Macs is reviewing Mac apps. In doing so, I find many products that are decent, well-designed applications. I also see a few apps that have me scratching my head, wondering what the developers had in mind when they built such an abomination. Needless to say, those apps never see the light of day here http://smartmil.com.

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Great article. Now for some fun let me reply to the comment posted on Apr 21, 2011 by someone who I have a feeling is an engineer:

Twentysomething yupster punks, eh? Sometimes their UI's are still preferable to completely filling the screen with every f-ing feature you can possibly think of, no matter how obscure a use case, "designed" by a bunch of aging, lonely, bolding, yet sporting long dirty hair around the top geeks who come to work in jean shorts and sandals, and whose house is void of furniture unrelated to playing video games, yet full of empty food packages going back 5 years.

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Written almost 3 years ago and still so relevant. Great article.

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Interesting article. Quite often we actually forget that there are great variety of different kind of users. I am personally working quite much with UX of professional tools, and there the simplicity can really be a problem. Some important and often needed feature will be hidden to second level of menu if you try to do it too simple. That's why I partly disagree with John Grubers's statement with the airplane cockpit and agree with you when you say that some tasks just are complex. Plane pilots are highly trained to use that UI. It makes the game totally different. So, simplicity is often a good way to make UI also intuitive, but in cases user is highly trained professional the efficiency overrules simplicity. For novice user, for example for basic mobile consumer the simplicity can be benefitial.

This all leads back to the most important basic rule: You must know the user and their needs to be able to design good user experience. Simple or complex.

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I can't believe I just found this site. I'm a student who is still directionless, but I keep finding myself interested in UX design. You know you like something when you can read articles about it without getting bored :D

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Beautiful article. I've been trying to get this across for a while. Oversimplified UIs have been the bane of my existence as long as I've used technology. The simplicity always seems to come at the cost of functionality and that's just not acceptable.

The funny part is that I always cite airplane cockpits as a paragon of good design (for the most part). It's nothing short of flagrant hubris to claim that something that's been tried and tested and refined over 100 years in a field where mistakes can mean horrible tragedy is somehow inferior in design to some corny app a couple of twentysomething yupster punks came up with in an afternoon because the latter is "simple".

PS: There's an irony in a UX magazine requiring me to put the "http" in my homepage link.

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Interesting choice of words--"prosperity". One wonders if the author associates it with all Asians...

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I would prefer the blender knew exactly how to blend what I wanted.

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Great article, and collects some of my favorite authors and references! I read some interesting stuff by David Segal in the NY Times and in REWORK (from 37signals) about design and complexity. I hope you'll forgive the link to my own site, but that includes links to all of the sources (both contextually and literally). http://bit.ly/cCFPQ8

Cheers, and thanks for more great reads.

Jason

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thankf you very much

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Excellent read.

Ultimately, what constitutes the correct level of simplicity in an interface depends on many factors. One of the most vital being the requirements of the target user. If there's a clear identifiable group - e.g. technical users, then the interface typically can (and should) look and feel more advanced. When designing for a variety of user types, it can become a trade off. As Andy Gott puts it above:

"The real genius, and the real advances, occur when a UI designer finds a way to reduce complexity without reducing power".

Indeed. Also, it can be wise to offer tiered levels of functionality. E.g. multiple interfaces based on user preferences.

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What an excellent article, thank you.

Seems like the most important thing in designing for the User Experience, is still making the tasks the user needs to perform as obvious and easy as possible, but not by limiting the number or complexity of tasks involved?

Great read, more like this please!

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Enlightening read, thanks :)

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As Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, not simpler."

Matching the simplicity to the desired power and the options is the challenge, not just making it simple by proving one giant button.

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To botch a famous qoute, "make things as simple as possible but not any simpler".

A good vid along these lines:

George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whjLZogf9e0

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I think the fundamentals of success or failure in UI design are summed up well by darwyn4's Einstein quote above.

There's always a trade-off between simplicity and power - if you don't have a way to specify a certain option, that option is removed, and the application becomes less powerful. This means that you're always accommodating for the middle ground (which is specific to your users, of course), in which the bulk of your users have enough power for their needs with the simplest possible interface.

The real genius, and the real advances, occur when a UI designer finds a way to reduce complexity without reducing power.

It's so important to understand your users well, and their perception of "simple". Many programmers and sys-admins, for example, find many tasks simpler using the command line than they do using a GUI.

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Deciding on the right tool(s) for the job is alluded to here.

Simple tools that are easy to use are good, simple tools that require mastery are good; complex tools that are easy to learn are good, complex tools that require mastery are good.

As for the blender: that's subjective. I used to go for A, but now I choose B. Experience has taught me that A makes me think, makes me choose, makes me ponder the options; B - I just blend, and I control.

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I really enjoyed that. Lots of excellent examples and nicely made points.

Thanks!

I do worry about the 'complex tasks are complex' argument, though.

It's easy to use that as an excuse to avoid designing simple solutions that meet mainstream users' needs.

I'd say that tasks are as complex as we want them to be. An SLR and a point and shoot camera both take photos. It's a question of how much control you want.

Experts want complex, precision control. Most people just want to get the job done with the minimum of fuss and get on with their lives.

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I agree. It's a hard balance to keep from being too simple or too complex in UI. Also, a backlash from the "simplicity" mindset is that now you see UIs that are completely devoid of everything, even the elements it needs to work right. Making some plain and simple just to make it plan and simple complicates the process for the user.

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My favorite quote on this subject:
"What about confusing clutter? Information overload? Doesn't data have to be "boiled down" and "simplified"? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading. Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information."
— Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information, p. 51

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" Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler "

in fewer words :)

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Excellent article -- really enjoyed the treatment of the two approaches of "stacked in time" and "adjacent in space." Seems like we need *more* ways to navigate functionality and content, and need to offer *multiple* paradigmatic or task-focused interfaces.

The software architect part of me says: if we could just "chunk up" UIs in conceptually clear, comprehensible slices, why couldn't we layer those slices -- i.e. re-use the chunks -- within different navigational paradigms? This would save immensely on development. Just thinkin'...

>>> a dashboard that displays visualizations of large data sets can only ever be complex because its purpose is complex.

Aren't you conflating complexity of content with complexity of navigation here? Just because the content is complex doesn't mean that manipulating it or applying application functionality has to also be complex.

>>> One would not expect to be able to fly a 187,000 pound hunk of metal from one end of the globe to another with one button.

Why not? Sounds great to me.

Again, great article and great links. Enjoyed it and learned a lot.

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I agree, simplicity for it's own sake would give the wrong result. I have done a lot of user research on technical users like developers and found that they want sophisticated interfaces for thier applications like bug tracker, IDE. They want an interface that they can master.

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Nicely done.

Don Norman
www.jnd.org

(Chapter 1 of my book "Living with Complexity" is available at
http://www.jnd.org/books.html )