The Three Design Principles and The Simplicity Myth

We are confusing usability with simplicity and capability with features. This is faulty logic, says usability and ‘cognitive design’ expert Don Norman, and our interpretation of our needs is mistaken: the goal is not simplicity; it is appropriateness, usability and enjoyability.

Suggesting that what consumers really want are frustration-free, capable devices that tame our complexity-rich lifestyles, Norman looks at how the ‘simplicity argument’ is not about simplicity, but poor usability and design.

Once we recognize that the real issue is to devise things that are understandable, we are halfway toward the solution. Good design can rescue us. How do we manage complexity? We use a number of simple design rules. For example, consider how three simple principles can transform an unruly cluster of confusing features into a structured, understandable experience: modularization, mapping, conceptual models. […]

Modularization means taking an activity and dividing it into small, manageable modules. That’s how well-designed multifunction printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines do it: Each function is compartmentalized by grouping and graphics, so each is relatively simple. […] Learn to do one function, you then know how to do all of them.

Good mapping is essential to ensure that the relationship between actions and results is apparent.

But most important of all is to provide an understandable, cohesive conceptual model, so the person understands what is to be done, what is happening, and what is to be expected. This requires continual, informative feedback, which can also be done in such a way as to be pleasurable: see any Apple product.

Emotional design is critical to a person’s enjoyment of a product, the most critical variable here being the need to feel in control. This is especially important when things go wrong. The key is to design knowing that things go wrong, thereby ensuring that people will understand what is happening and know what to do about it.

The argument is not between adding features and simplicity, between adding capability and usability. The real issue is about design: designing things that have the power required for the job while maintaining understandability, the feeling of control, and the pleasure of accomplishment.



One response to “The Three Design Principles and The Simplicity Myth”

  1. Hello Lloyd!
    Great post and thank you for sharing Normans looks. I worked some time as a program tester and from within I saw just how often the issue of user feedback is put aside for the reason of cost reduction. And it’s just not a good idea for long term product.

    The phrase “designing things that have the power required for the job while maintaining understandability, the feeling of control, and the pleasure of accomplishment.” is exactly the right motto for what it’s about. It has the power of simplicity, is understandable and it’s a pleasure to read it.