My two bob’s worth on the Don Norman simplicity debate

Don Norman, respected usability guru, wrote an article on the demise of simplicity as a selling point, and it’s caused reverberations all around the world. In fact, his article has been so controversial that he’s found it necessary to write a clarifying addendum for the essay (added to the bottom of the article), fearing that many of his readers interpreted his article as concluding that simplicity should no longer be a design goal. Norman’s point is that a product with a greater number of features is more appealing than a similar product with fewer features. The “more complicated” product is therefore more likely to sell. In other words, feature creep is driven by the knowledge that consumers will be suckered in to paying for a product that looks more complicated, even though, in many cases, they might complain about the difficulty of using the product when they get home.

I think there’s a difference between giving a user too many choices and too many features. Confusion and frustration arises when the user is presented with an array of subtly different choices. Joel Spolsky provides an excellent example: the Windows Vista shutdown menu. Windows Vista provides the user with umpteen slightly different ways of shutting down the computer. Why? On the other hand, providing lots of features that do different things need not result in frustrating the user, because, well, they are for accomplishing distinct tasks, and the user can clearly separate them in their mind. Take those Japanese toilets, for instance. These toilets have an integrated bidet, dryer, seat warmer, massage options, automatic flushing and so on and so forth. The existence of these features does not mean that the toilet isn’t simple to use, per se. If however, each of those features had a confusing list of subtly different settings, then that could be a problem!

Norman’s essay could have been made easier to read and resulted in less confusion if it had been written more clearly and more carefully. The following is just the most confusing of a number of errors that can be found in his article:

Notice the question: “pay more money for a washing machine with less controls.” An early reviewer of this paper flagged the sentence as an error: “Didn’t you mean ‘more money’?” the reviewer asked?

But it already says “more money”. Somehow Norman and his reviewer have conspired to introduce an error that is similar to the one they were seeking to avoid. If that’s not irony, I don’t know what is.