Simple software is not simplistic software! Joel and Norman are wrong

Joel and Norman state several things regarding simplicity in their respective blog, but what they say can be summarized in a simple syllogism (pun intended):

  1. People like the products with more features
  2. All products with more features have more controls in the User Interfacea are less simple
  3. Therefore: People want products that are less simple and have more controls in the User Interface.

I don’t know about you, but this syllogism seems to me to fall apart in the second premise. If you don’t see why let’s examine it closely.

It is no secret that people tend to buy products with more features. When you go to the shop the person trying to sell you the product gets paid based on what she sells. If you buy the cheaper model she will get a smaller commission, therefore there’s a tendency from sales people to sell the most expensive, i.e. more feature-rich product. Now, I would argue that if all the most expensive products were simpler then the incentive on the sales side would be for the simple product, therefore contributing for more sales of simpler products.

It is true that people do buy the more complex products, but then they return them because they cannot operate them according to Barry Schwartz, who has studied the impact of too much choice on consumers.

Quality is multidimensional

People actually don’t want more complex products. Even in S. Korea where Norman says people are attracted by exterior complexity because it is seen as a status symbol. People may even like to have products that enhance their perceived status (even if they look complex), but complexity is not the attribute they buy in the product! They are looking for one dimension of Quality: “perceived status deriving from the Item”.

The same is true for a Rolls Royce, they are bought at stupidly expensive prices not because they are beautiful (even if you could argue they are) or functional (even if you could argue they are) or easy to use (even if you could argue they are). Rolls Royce get sold because they mean “I’m filthy rich, admire my exterior symbol of superiority”. That is the quality of Rolls Royce.

If we come back to the world of software we have several examples of products that sell and are not simple. Linux sells because it has certain qualities that appeal to it’s target: purchase price, flexibility, visual appeal, etc. But, arguably simplicity is not the main quality Linux users are looking for.

Simplicity sells, complexity makes sales difficult

Simplicity is a quality that is looked for in software. Simplicity is about delivering value without unneeded complexity. Making the product “simple but not simpler than it needs to be.”

In your market, you need to decide: which qualities does your market appreciate. If your market appreciates features and does not consider complexity a sales breaker then by all means go and build a software that offers them all of the features without paying attention to the complexity. However, you must be warned, most users do not have the time or the patience to learn your software (no matter how many controls you put on the UI). If you end up with a lot of returned products or a lot of unhappy customers, you may find out that complexity was what caused the problems.

In fact complexity is a sales stopper. Take this example: if you get a sales person in front of you and she cannot explain the features that the product offers (because they are too complex) how likely are you to buy the product?

Simple features (to understand, to assess the value, to use) sell because you can get the value from them. Software products are tools for their users. We don’t use software because we like to use it, we use it because we want to call our friends with Skype or chat with iChat or SMS via a web-site. Software either makes it possible or not, complex software makes achieving our objectives that much harder. That’s why, even if it sells, it won’t sell for long.

The broken syllogism: Simplicity is not less features, it is more “user-valuable-features”!

In Windows, if you use the CTRL-tab and try to select an application with your mouse you will not be able to. Why then can you do it on Mac? Because of simplicity! Yes, simplicity is not less features, it just means that it is “simple” to select an application when pressing CTRL-tab with the mouse. This is a feature that adds value to the CTRL-tab feature. There you go, more features but yet simpler. This also means that the second premise in the syllogism is wrong, therefore the syllogism is wrong.

The fact that Joel and Norman implicitly state that “more features == more complex to use software” is a sign that they don’t understand the different levels of value that you can have in a software product.