mercredi 13 avril 2011

The laws of simplicity

Trying to be simple in my life is a cause I fight for everyday. Simple is the little that means the most, it is this pure knowledge or truth that finds its way directly to your heart and your mind. When I saw a book talking about simplicity in the hands of a work colleague, I couldn't but borrow it and check it out. The laws of simplicity is a book written by John Maeda, a professor in MIT's Media Lab and a famous graphic designer. In this book, the author doesn't go so far in explaining why simplicity should be a way of thinking and a way of life, he rather focuses on how to reach simplicity, by respecting a set of ten laws. Nevertheless, It is clear through the book that John Maeda is convinced by the importance of simplicity in business: Simplicity sells!
The ten laws of simplicity are the following:

  1. REDUCE: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  2. ORGANIZE: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  3. TIME: Savings in time feel like simplicity.
  4. LEARN: knowledge makes everything simpler
  5. DIFFERENCES: Simplicity and complexity need each other
  6. CONTEXT: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
  7. EMOTION: More emotions are better than less.
  8. TRUST: In simplicity we trust.
  9. FAILURE: Some things can never be made simple.
  10. THE ONE: Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.
I found that the first four laws are the most important to achieve simplicity, and the rest of them are to be considered when you feel that you have exaggerated in your simplicity.

The first law, reduce, has reminded me very much of a chapter I read in Rework, a recent business book. In Rework, they underline the importance of reducing features in a product to focus on the essential, reduce company complexity and expenditures to have lesser business inertia (more flexibility). They advice to put pre-constraints on your work (scope, budget, time, material) to avoid complexity and avoid drifting from core business. To respect the Reduce Law, John Maeda proposes to the reader a tool he calls "SHE". SHE stands for Shrink, Hide and Embody.
  • Shrink: The smaller an object is, the more it exceeds our expectations and impresses us. The more delicate and fragile it is, the more attention we give it. Ex: an iPod nano.
  • Hide: Whenever there is a complexity, just hide it! and give the power to the user to control the presence of this complexity. Ex: Touchscreen smartphones: dial pad appears only when u click on a small icon on the home screen. Ex: in Cloud computing, the complexity of business logic and computing is hidden from the user, as it is put away from him.
  • Embody: Now that your product is simpler, you have give it more value in the perception of the final user. This is mostly a business/marketing operation. Ex: The distinctive image perceived by apple products.
The second important law Organize is very inspired from the German gestalt theory of perception. According to this theory, when a set of elements are well organized, they are perceived as less, and thus simpler. The good organization of the iPod's buttons set made it one of the most famous mp3 player worldwide. Once again, the author provides us a tool to Organize: the "SLIP" tool. SLIP stands for:
  • Sort: Group items into instinctive groups.
  • Label: Label each group.
  • Integrate: Merge groups.
  • Prioritize: Sort groups by priority.
The third law is about Time. Everything that takes less time is simpler. Here again if we use the SHE tool in Reduce, we can reach simplicity. Shrinking the necessary time for a task to be done, by more processing power, or by smarter algorithms. When it is impossible Hide the elapse of time for example by using a progress bar, and finally embody your product with the value of speed.

The fourth law is Learn, is the fact that the products that demand minimum knowledge, or already existent one, are simpler. A product that doesn't require a manual to be read in order to be used is obviously a simpler product.

The rest of laws enriches the simplicity we are searching for, and limits the drift in simplicity. For example, It is necessary to know that without a contrast to complexity, the simplicity doesn't exist, just like good and bad. A product without emotions is a cold uncomfortable product, and thus not simple. I invite those who are interested in understanding simplicity to read the book and examine the complete set of simplicity laws.

PS: I am not a fan of Apple, but yeah, they know how to elaborate simple yet great products.


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