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To Think About . . .
Within a sequence of decisions, your most hesitant and vague decision will have the greatest effect on the overall consequences. Alexander Cortes
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I think that one of the tendencies that most of us have to fight against is the tendency to overcomplicate things. I’ve tried with all my time management systems to design them so that they are as simple as possible and need the minimum of “props”. Yet I’ve noticed that one of the first thing that happens when I issue a new system is that an army of people descend on it and think up ways to make it more complicated.

What are the advantages of simplicity versus complexity?

To answer that, just think of a few things which people by and large really hate:

  • Software manufacturers who instead of ironing out the bugs in the basic functionality of their products keep on adding more and more functions which most people never use.
  • Politicians who keep producing more and more laws in an effort to solve problems which they created in the first place.
  • Being asked to provide the same information over and over again.

Then think of a few simple solutions which suddenly cut through all the complexity:

  • The Amazon “One-Click” ordering system
  • The “point and shoot” digital camera
  • The Clickfree back up system in which you just plug in an external hard disk to start the back-up and unplug it when it’s finished.

Now please note that a simple system for the user may be the result of a very complex process. To produce any of these three examples of simplicity required a lot of thought and a lot of very sophisticated technology. But because the manufacturers were thinking “How simple can we make this?” the end result was something that revolutionises its field.

So a good question to keep asking yourself is “How simple can I make my life/my business/this particular project”? This is not “simple” as in living in a cave eating vegetables, but “simple” as in “makes it easier to do it than not to do it” or “makes it easier to do it right than to do it wrong”.

Reader Comments (13)

Very good Mark! I'm a big fan of the KISS principle - Keep It Short & Simple.

I'd like to suggest another example - the 37signals products ( ). Very useful, very simple.
July 22, 2009 at 16:19 | Unregistered CommenterZane
Examples like Amazon's “One-Click” ordering system, “point and shoot” digital cameras and the Clickfree back up system are complex in building, but easy in use - those are two different things. I think that's the aim of most people that try to tinker with your systems, they're often still striving for simplicity.

If a point and shoot camera suffices, sure, but the point is many want to do more with their camera. In terms of productivity people want to get a higher quality of life. I do think simplicity is key, but

When the preaching of simplicity is echoed in a response to people 'trying' to complicate things what you see as good enough, they are often stereotyped as being 'overly complicated'. That is based on a assumption that the 'simple' method is good enough and indeed is simple to each person. Certainly not a compliment to many people trying to adapt your time management ideas to their personal situations (the proverbial army of people as you put it).

In any case, I think design is often complex in bringing it about, but should be simple in use - the two needn't be confused. I think elegance is a good thing to strive for, which for me equates to
1) getting the most benefit for minimal amount of resources &
2) a design where you can't take a way a single element without affecting its effectiveness.
July 22, 2009 at 17:03 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Knight

Well, yes, but I don't think you've read anything like as many of these "still striving for simplicity" amendments as I have!
July 22, 2009 at 18:13 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I always strive for simplicity. After writing my first ebook I started a second to even simplify things even more. I tested it and was just about to release it when I realized that while simple it had one flaw which could result in some wasted time in using the system. So I am trying to fix this flaw before releasing it.

July 23, 2009 at 1:31 | Unregistered CommenterGerry
You are absolutely right, Mark.

People tend to make things complicated over time. A simple idea or design becomes hard to manage, a device become hard to use, and a "thing" become incomprehensible to a normal person.

Many times the original idea or design may be really simple. But people have a tendency of making things "all-in", meaning that the design should be capable of facing all "thinkable" situations. This adds some "necessary" components to cater for the not-so-usual cases (may be less than 5%). Then we have the term "fool-proof", meaning that we have to make the system capable of handling nonsensual or absent-minded uses. This is, however, not the end. We also add features that are "nice to have" but may not be used by 90% of the people.

So, we create "perfect things" which are fool-proof, serving all people, and with all thinkable nice features. The catch is, we have created some really complicated things.

Now, back to making things simple. I believed that a really good way is designing by looking at the users' experience, imagining the best that can happen to them, and stay focus to these core needs/requirements/features.

Well, I may be making my point too complicated now.
July 23, 2009 at 9:32 | Unregistered CommenterCatus Lee
How very true, Mark!
I still remember when I had my palm V - simple, elegant and, very user friendly. You can't find PDAs like those nowadays. What you find these days have bells and whistles that people don't end up using.
I've read some reports online that about 60% of features in gadgets are not used by 90% of the users.

There's a place for complexity: art and literary works. A complex piece of art can always be appreciated.
But for others, simpler the better!
July 23, 2009 at 11:45 | Unregistered CommenterSiva
Hi Mark,

I find your comments relevant and timely. I'm working with AF2 again, back on the wagon, so to speak. For me and my needs it is a massive improvement on AF. One thing that has seemed to throw me off regularly with AF and AF2 is my tendency to get drawn into forum discussions around tweaks and modifications. For some reason my confidence in AF2 (as defined by you) wavers when I see so many suggestions to change it. For this reason I'm doing my best to keep it very simple and work AF2 as recommended.
July 23, 2009 at 21:51 | Unregistered CommenterLeon
Not sure that simplicity is so simple.

Picture an Amazon Indian who has never had contact with western culture, walking through virgin rainforest. He’s hungry. He really wants a snack.

Suddenly, strangely, he comes across a fully functional vending machine, selling soup, crisps, chocolate... whatever. I don't know, it probably fell from a plane. And it works because it's solar powered. Whatever. There are tokens for the machine lying all around it.

He also has a bow and arrow. And he can hear a bird singing - a bird he knows to be particularly succulent perhaps.

What's simpler to that Amazonian – to guess that the pictures of food on the bags and pouches in this huge, strange box mean that they contain food, then to figure out this bizarre unimaginable puzzle, which seems ingeniously designed to keep these strange bags and pouches inaccessible and unattainable… or to pop over to the tree, shoot the bird, knock up a quick fire and have a nice roast?

Imagine a westerner in exactly the same scenario. Maybe she parachuted down from that plane. Which is simpler to her?

So what is simplicity? In the context of recurring or repeatable processes… minimisation of the physical labour required to achieve a single iteration of the process? If so, driving a car down the road is simpler than walking – and I don’t think that’s right. Minimisation of mental effort required to achieve a single instance of a repeatable process? As in the example above, that depends completely on your knowledge, understanding and previous exposure to the scenario, concepts, tools and techniques involved.

Simplicity, as you describe it in your initial post, is about an intuitive interface. And how intuitive something is is a function of experience and knowledge… of familiarity. I suspect this is why PDAs seem more complicated to you now than they used to – not because the interface is more difficult, but because you are less familiar with the wealth of possibilities PDAs now offer. In fact, the issue you raise with PDAs is not about complexity at all – at least, not as described in your first post. You don’t mention the interface. By and large, PDA interfaces have got quicker, smoother, simpler. But PDAs now can do many more things than they used to. Your problem seems to be not whether they are able to do these things simply, in terms of the interface, but that they do these things at all. Not complexity as defined in the first post, but diversity.

Either way, it seems that the real root cause of problems is familiarity, or lack of it. So on that basis, when you say that people descend on your system to make it more complicated, what you’re actually saying seems to be that people have a tendency to make it less familiar to you.

As long as this army is making the system more familiar to themselves at the same time as making it less familiar to you, seems to me that things are pretty much as they should be.

That said, I instinctively agree with you about simplicity. I think there’s enormous value in avoiding unnecessary complication. I’m sure you have a lot of interesting thoughts on that, and while I don’t think you’ve nailed it yet, but I’d be very interested in hearing your further thoughts on it.
July 31, 2009 at 15:26 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Parsons
Apologies Mark - it was not, of course, you who mentioned the PDA. However, I still think there is some way to go to understand what is meant by simplicity - as described above

July 31, 2009 at 15:37 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Parsons

Hmmm... so who is going to learn quicker?

Your Westerner shows the Amazonian how to put a token in the machine and get out the goodies - easily done by example. Not too difficult to grasp surely?

You Amazonian explains to the Westerner how to find and stalk quarry, shoot a bow, start a fire by rubbing sticks together, and cook a bird over it. I think someone's going hungry tonight (and possibly the next few weeks as well!)
July 31, 2009 at 20:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I wonder whether the idea of looking to put yet more bells & whistles on, say, a new mobile phone, for example, is rooted in the the premise of "added value"? This was certainly something that came into the educational field in the 90s and is obviously well known in other areas as well. Perhaps companies believe that by giving us extras on their products or systems they are somehow giving us better value for money. I would wholeheartedly agree that we use a very few features of our computer programmes regularly and ignore, or have no knowledge of the others available to us. Or is it all just an excuse to charge us more money?
Incidentally, having used the 1Click system on Amazon this morning, I discovered simplicity can have drawbacks. You cannot automatically access the supersaver (i.e. free) delivery option this way; at least, I couldn't find a way to do so.
August 6, 2009 at 22:53 | Unregistered CommenterSue
May 21, 2010 at 13:33 | Unregistered Commenterafdsda
Well, they're both good reasons, aren't they, Sue?

What do you think companies are for?
May 21, 2010 at 20:06 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis

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