Achieving Greater Simplicity Involves Managing Increasing Complexity

    November 22, 2004

Never before has there been so much to choose from, and never before has it been more important to eliminate most of these choices.

Copenhagen airport has a nice feature in its baggage reclaim area. On the monitor it tells you how long it will take for the baggage to arrive. The minutes count down: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. The last three times I was there it paused at zero for what seemed longer than one minute, and then the word “DELAYED” appeared.

For the traveler, “delayed” is like a red rag to a bull. In my impatient mind, I feel that the monitor is teasing me, setting up an expectation only to disappoint and annoy. Why are they providing this information, I ask myself irritably, when it’s never accurate?

It’s very difficult to predict exactly how long it will take to get bags from a plane to the reclaim area. It depends on the size of the plane, how far the plane is parked from the reclaim area, how busy the airport is at the time of arrival, etc.

Dublin airport has a sign in the baggage reclaim that explains all this. It gives a time range for different types of planes. I’m much happier with this sort of information. The time it takes me to get my bags in Dublin and Copenhagen airport is roughly the same, but I’m happier waiting at Dublin airport.

I’m sure it was quite expensive to design the Copenhagen system. The Dublin “system” is printed on a white board, and is a much more effective solution. Just because it is technically possible to provide misleading information, doesn’t mean you should.

As web designers, we need to be very careful about the lure of complexity. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that if it’s hard to design, it must be good; that if it’s using the latest technology, it must be good; that if all our friends think it’s really cool, it must be good.

Yes, we need to manage increasing levels of complexity, but our key challenge will be to hide as much of that complexity as possible. Otherwise, we’ll drown people in a swimming pool-full of choices and useless information, when all they want is a cup of water.

I read recently that to remove a click from a software program requires doing 20 things in the background. Look at Google. Its search engine has become more and more complex and comprehensive over the years, but its search interface has remained simple.

Recently, I read an article by a technology editor telling Apple what they need to do next if they really want to make a long-term success of iPod. In his opinion, they have to turn it into an Aladdin’s Cave of applications. Can’t such people see that at the heart of the success of the iPod is its simplicity?

As the world becomes more complex, your time will increasingly be spent deciding what not to show people. To give people a simple world, your world as a manager will become increasingly complex. Don’t ask about what people need. Find out what they don’t need.

For your web content management solution, contact Gerry McGovern

Subscribe to his New Thinking Newsletter: