20 May 2013

Simplicity is More Difficult Than it Looks

When I saw the following link in my Twitter stream - 8 Must Have Tools for Dropbox - it sparked a realisation. In truth, I probably come across a dozen such links per day through various channels, and I could have chosen any, as the question would be the same: How did we get to a point where there are eight "must have" tools in order to use a single application? Given that so many of us probably rely on at least 5 or 6 such tools in our everyday life (in my own case, Twitter, Gmail, Google Drive, LinkedIn, Slideshare, and Blogger), if each of these requires another handful of productivity add-ons (or even several handfuls - 99 "essential" Twitter tools!) in order to use them effectively, our information workflows (as well as our device home screens) get cluttered pretty quickly. There has to be a better way.

Image: Disk Depot (Wikimedia Commons)
How have we come to a point where using one app 'requires' so many others? Well for one reason, we now use information in a much more integrated way, and these add-on applications often afford us this luxury by helping us to connect our usage across different contexts and platforms. So there is an aspect of this that is certainly driven by user demand. Another reason is that, good design is about simplicity. Yet simplicity is very hard to do. Look at many of the off-line information and productivity tools we use every day in the physical world and how simply they are designed. Books are the obvious example. Who doesn't love post-it notes? There is still something incredibly satisfying about crossing off tasks on a paper-based to-do list. People still use these things because they are incredibly simple yet powerful tools. Indeed one of the original selling points of Dropbox for many users was its simplicity, built around existing user habits and behaviours; simply drag and drop your files in the same way you always do. So why do we so often think that greater complexity and sophistication is necessarily better?

If we think of many of our library services and resources, they are far from simple. Sometimes things are intrinsically complex and there is no way of avoiding it. But in other cases, the language we use, the processes we create, and the rules we make can seem overly complicated. Sometimes we don't need to do everything all at once. Designers need to realise this, but perhaps so do end users.

Sometimes, less is more.


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