“A Design Epiphany: Keep It Simple” is a New York Times article getting some play on the blogs. Given my new drum to beat, it won’t surprise you that I think this notion of “simplicity” plays right into what I said about “managing expectations” and making your designs explicit. A simple design will meet a user’s expectations, because they’ll be able to grasp what it does.
There’s a spin on this, though, that’s kind of alluded to, but not really addressed in the article. It’s the paraphrased Einstein quote, “”Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” What is not acknowledged in this article is what to do when something is, well, complex. A common error is to try to “simplify” it by reducing the elements for interaction — saying having a single button serve more than one function, depending on modes. So while the interface might look simple, actually using the damn thing can be a pain (I’m thinking of radio alarm clocks right now).
This came up at the 2003 IA Summit, when Mark Bernstein reminded us all that “Multivalence is Not A Vice.” This is a challenge that information architects have that interaction designers and product designers don’t really have to grapple with. Information, in the form of words and messages, have an inherent complexity, because they have an inherent ambiguity — they can mean different things in different contexts to different people. There’s rarely, if ever, a one-to-one mapping. We have to deal with the fact that a variety of people will approach and use a single piece of content in a multitude of ways, and that that content will, in turn, spur a multitude of responses on the part of the reader. (Off the top of my head, think of a recipe. Typically it’s “used” as a set of instructions for cooking, but it can also be used as a guide for making a grocery list, or a communication tool to suggest a meal to someone else. Right there, that one recipe affords a wider variety of uses, of interactions, then, say, the Rabbit Corkscrew.)
I don’t know where this tangent has taken me. But I’m going to stop now.