Complexity Kills

As designers, we tend to abhor complexity. We want our products to be simple to use. A complex product interface can lead to misunderstanding and errors in use. With a medical device, such errors can have devastating consequences. The devices we design have to be effective, which leads to a certain amount of complexity, but the key is ensuring there is no additional extraneous complexity. It’s not a straight tradeoff; complexity often has a negative effect on efficacy. Have you ever had a phone or camcorder with functions that you never used because they were just so complicated (or never used because you didn’t even know they were there)? Products should be both as simple and effective as possible.

Clay Shirky has an interesting post about the effect that complexity can have on business models. Pivoting on Joseph Tainter’s work on how complexity threatens societies, Shirky notes how complexity in a business model can become irreversible. Businesses often build this complexity to extract as much profit as possible from a certain situation or market. Unfortunately, when the situation or market changes, the complexity shifts from an edifice to an anchor that can be impossible to chip away. Given the dangers of overly complex business models, companies in fast-moving industries may benefit from designing their business models as we do our products: as simple and effective as possible.