5 problems with simple

Luke Forsythe
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”


A simple service is a better service. We all know this, right? Companies like Facebook, Apple and perhaps most famously, Google, have beaten competition by creating simpler, easier-to-use alternatives. Looking forward, simplicity is partially relevant for the post-PC era. Aaron Levie, the young entrepreneur and cloud computing innovator behind Box observes,  “Instagram’s billion-dollar acquisition and rise to 40 million users can mostly be attributed to the creation of the cleanest, most elegant, and simplest way to share photos on mobile devices”. Levie believes this represents a wider trend coming out of Silicon Valley and spreading across the globe. In his Fast Co. article, The Simplicity Thesis, he offers a recipe for success: “Want to spot the next great technology or business opportunity? Just look for any market that lacks a minimally complex solution to a sufficiently large problem.”

At Fjord, we too see “the radical simplification of everything” as hugely important in 2013. CEO Olof Schybergson explains: “…we’re seeing single-purpose apps and services gaining ground… The payments startup Square is a good example: By simplifying the bureaucratic process of becoming a credit-card merchant, Square has managed to become a $3 billion company in under three years.”

In spite of this trend, there are still digital products and services being designed that ignore the need for radically simple solutions. You may have even had a hand in one recently and wished it had turned out simpler. Why is simple often so hard to achieve in reality? Below, are 5 reasons why I think Simple isn’t so simple.

1. Simple is a guilty pleasure (still)

“I like it because it’s easy to use, but then that’s because I’m useless at this stuff” – My Mum. 

There are still a lot of people that don’t like to admit to preferring a simpler alternative. Many of them are the ones designing and building apps today (more on them below). There is still a stigma attached to Simple. It’s quite telling that to call someone “simple” is an insult. In a world where social marketing has made brands more and more personable, this is possibly more relevant than you might think. If a brand was a person, would it be good to be seen as “simple”?

2. Simple is very hard to sell to big companies

Bob – “Did you see our new app?”

Jim – “What does it do?”

Bob – “It lets you write notes”

Jim – “That’s all?”

So when I say “Sell” I mean pitching an idea to a company. Simple is very easy to sell you’re holding it in you hands. But when you’re asking a company to invest thousands of pounds in something that will be simple, it suddenly seems quite dangerous. The problem with Simple, as a word, is that it’s closely associated with the word, Less. Without the positive associations that the design community attach to it, the word is seen as a negative. Often, in the eyes of the client, you’re saying “I want an easy ride, let’s keep this simple, ok?”. They think, at least on a subconscious level, “I want more for my money, not less”. And can you really blame them?

It’s on us to convince them otherwise, but often this isn’t an easy task. Conventions around deliverables don’t go hand in hand with beautifully simple design.

3. Simple doesn’t look good in wireframes

“This wireframe is empty”

Most digital services exist early on as wireframes. A wireframe are stripped-back blueprints. They were conceived by information architects in order to communicate complex information hierarchies of detailed web pages. The best wire-framers out there pride themselves on their ability to sift through mountains of complex data, analyse, categorise and display it neatly in a wireframe. They would never admit it but in presenting “just a box on a page” to a CEO of a big company, they feel slightly uncomfortable. Lurking in their subconscious is the question, “Am I worth the money if it doesn’t look at least a bit complicated?”. Pre-1997, Google was a box on a page. Obviously, in the back-end google is a hugely complex bundle of technical wizardry. However, to 99% of it’s users, it’s simply a box on a page. And that’s why they love it.

That 99% is who we have to concentrate on when we talk about simplicity.

4. Simple isn’t a priority for very clever people

Perhaps I should clarify, lots of very clever people see the importance of Simplicity (Einstein, for one). But the full value of Simple is often overlooked by very intelligent, book-smart, analytical people. Why? Perhaps because they have got to where they are by being much better at understanding complex problems than the average person. Effectively they’ve been screened for their inability to appreciate or require simplicity. Unfortunately, these people are often in charge of not just funding apps but also building and designing them. They may understand the value of radical simplicity in principle but it’s seldom a priority. Have you heard the following catch phases, possibly in this order:

“People will easily get it”

“It will still be simple if we add…”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t get it?”

“…Should you even be working here?”

Ok, maybe not that last one but if you’ve heard any of the others, chances are you see simplicity as a priority, and they don’t. It’s not their fault, it’s just that their natural threshold for something being “simple enough” is much higher than average.

5. Simple can only really be achieved if seen through to the end.

If a designer or product owner wants their service to be beautifully simple, they must defend that principle through each stage of the design process, and beyond. The days of designing something and “throwing it over the fence” need to be behind us if we’re going to nail Simple. It’s amazing how the good intentions of people at each stage can slowly morph a simple concept into a bloated nightmare. This complexity-creep is possibly the biggest hurdle for simple in a collaborative design process.

Initial concepts, refined concept, wireframes, UI Design, prototype, testing, iterations, production, launch and post-launch – If Simple is your goal, none of these steps or the subsequent feedback can add without first taking away.

Ideally, at each of these stages, you do the following:

– Remind yourself of the core offering

– Ask yourself, is this still mind-blowingly easy?

– If not: protect the core, kill the rest.

Cutting back the fat and re-assessing the core offering at each of these stages is essential. It takes guts and a large degree of trust in your team but you should end up with something truly special.

What we can do?

Let’s talk about it. If you too believe that simplicity increasingly plays a key role in representing the difference between good and great services, please comment. How can we push this agenda? Have you run into the above problems while trying to spread the good word of Simple? Do you have your own problems to add?

I’d like to write a follow up post, if you have anything to add, please tweet at me @lukeforsythe

Luke Forsythe

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