One of the most over-speculated and questionable trends today must be the concept of simplicity. You can’t miss a trends report or prediction without it popping up. Arguably, our current fascination with simplicity was born our of the launch of the iconic and sleek iPod and then reinforced by the arrival of products and brands like the American Apparel, Uniqlo, the RAZR and even Tivo.
Yes, PSFK will hold our hand up and say that we’ve tagged our product and service reports ‘simplicity’. But trends change and in review, it might be because of the fact that many of these products and services are far from simple that they have become so popular and that the trend is Simply-Complex not simplicity itself.
A few months ago Don Norman published a thought-provoking article on his site called ‘Simplicity Is Highly Overrated‘. The article suggested that simplicity was a fantasy and that we actually long for complexity to engage us. He said"
"Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them? Answer: Because the people want the features. Because simplicity is a myth whose time has past, if it ever existed.Make
it simple and people won’t buy. Given a choice, they will take the item
that does more. Features win over simplicity, even when people realize
that it is accompanied by more complexity. You do it too, I bet.
Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the
features of each, preferring the one that did more?"
So, maybe the first thing we look for in a product is something that is accessible rather than totally simplistic, then we look for detail and complexity.
Think of a way that a video game gets you involved in a game: often it takes you through a number of levels to train you. The first level is rather simple and often helps you understand a basic game play such as movement. As the levels increase, the more you learn. By the end of the training levels you’re pretty sophisticated in terms of games play and ready for the proper game. If the game only required simplicity – i.e. the need to only have the skills to complete the first level – we’d all get rather bored of it rather fast.
Software has the same approach. It’s very easy to start some programs, but it’s what we learn to do with the product later that keeps us interested. Updates are essential in retaining our attention.
In fact, the iPod and American Apparel appear to be very simple but are highly complex at the same time. On one level they just offer this easy to use music player and colorful tees, but on another level they are detailed and changing. The popularity of the iPod may not be only to do with it’s simple interface – that really just grants access. The popularity could be due to the complexity of functions which we learn to use over time: the synchronization with iTunes, buying new music, subscribing to podcasts and connecting it to your sneakers. After a while, our little white box is quite a provider of entertainment and even exercise. We get quite used to the versatility so that when we see very complex products like this one, we seem to think we can learn to use them.
American Apparel is simply-complex. AA have a deep social and ecological mission behind it and the more you go into the stores the more you get to know it. At first, you go to the store because you can find that top or bottom that’s the perfect color but as you use the changing room, you start to get involved in the American Apparel story. Your shopping experience will make you pass photos of social issues such as arrest-photos of women arrested in California in the 60s or a photo-montage of clothing labels from around the world. On your way to the counter you pass TV screens with founder Dov Charney on business shows and when you get to the counter, you find a Mexican newspaper you could pick up (if you can read Spanish).
Online, there have been several services that have been praised because incorrectly for their simplicity. YouTube is not about simplicity. Flickr is not about
Simplicity. These sites are very simple to access but their success
relies on the deep complex levels you can go to in order to customize
your experience: channels, sets, groups, widgets, friends and so on.
It’s worth reading Jack Cheng’s words here when he looks at the simple-complex factors at work behind the success of Amazon. Also watch these two creatives talk here about ‘good design’ becoming more prevalent in 2007. Are they really saying stuff that makes us want to use it day after day after day?
No doubt 2007 will see simplicity used as a buzz word but it may be hiding the simple complexity of the products its being used to sell. 2007 will see a continued trend towards products that boast simplicity but do more than one thing, that
multi-task. Beauty products have to moisturize and sparkle, soda drinks will refresh and thin you and any other simply-complex products.