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 off of 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.
I find that most things, products, services, regulations, and business plans, have reverse entropy and tend to gain complexity over time.
I worked for an entrepreneur at a medical start-up that insisted that everything be designed very simply, with the Physician providing a simple prescription and the machine dealing with everything needed to implement it. As an engineer creating these algorithms, I felt forced to ask question after question about what trade-offs to make; do you want to aggressively attack the tumor or minimize peripheral damage? is it acceptable to take longer for treatment or does it need to fit into the current schedule norms? what is the difference between an error that should terminate treatment vs. normal treatment tolerance?
Over the course of implementation, the visionary gained a very detailed understanding of the issues involved, and the product gained complexity to match. In the end the product became complex in new and different ways which required training on the new concepts for users rather than being simple and intuitive.
The challenge seems to be keeping things simple over time, fighting the creeping complexity that is driven by the increasingly complex understanding of the leadership and implementers, as well as the barrage of feature requests, individual business opportunities (I can close this deal we can just…), and competitive pressures.
How do Google and Apple do it? It seems that they hide the complexity well below the user level, putting the challenges on the developers and saying no to feature creep more often than not. For a business model, this means turning away business or leaving money on the table, which can be very difficult to do without a disciplined, long term commitment to a plan.
John, I think the Flip may have gone away with the inclusion of video in phones? They are of roughly equal size and now someone who uses both just needs to carry one object and minimize use of pocket space. It seems this melding would increase complexity, but does it just blend in with a very broad feature set on smartphones? There can be many features but the device can seem elegant or intuitive in use.
I used to want to customize everything setting-wise with programs or devices. Now I reside more on the other side, preferring simplicity while allowing just enough functions. It seems analogous to the best recipes to me – not too many ingredients, just good ones in the right balance.
Bryan, I’m guessing that for you, the jailbreaking aspect might be just as much fun as the expanded feature set? Those with the drive to expand functionality or to reinvent functions for new technology live in a fertile time for conjuring new, creative applications.
I can attest to how complexity in a business model can make life confusing and frustrating for employees. Both my wife and father work for very large corporations and are constantly talking about issues I will never face at the small firm I work for.
On the product end, taking Apple products for example, simplicity appeals the majority of their consumers but not to me. I want to have more features than I can understand at once, it makes my enjoyment of the product longer lasting. A product that is too locked down and whose features are too filtered are of little interest to me and others like me. This is the reason jailbreaking and rooting of electronic devices exist, to open up features that the designers thought would be a good idea that we lived without.
Part of the challenge would be that yes, a simple to use electronic device or a simply-designed mechanical device is a beautiful thing, but at what cost to the user? Optimally none, right? An iPod is pretty simple and satisfying… but what if your camcorder were that simple and then you missed some singular function that you did want. I guess the Flip was an answer to that. And to be honest, people I know who had and used them loved them, but I guess something else went wrong. (I’m not actually well-informed on why they failed.)