Are we getting stupid?

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Over the past months, every interface lab worth its salt had three words in mouth, three little words they were screaming to their unsuspecting public: “Less is more”. Interfaces needed to be cleaner, have less buttons and, if buttons there were, these needed to be bigger, simpler, brighter. Dubbed by some the Fischer-Price style, this new kind of web interface has spread to the darker recesses of the web — even .Mac now sports big orange buttons, so big they look like coasters.

In a way, this trend is laudable and one can only applaud a genuine desire to simplify technology, make it more accessible, easier to grasp and use for a larger public. The web, traditionally driven by little enticing point and click methods, has seen the advent of smooth interfaces, real-time updates and even visual effects, some of them quite stunning. Over the past weeks, the web got pampered in the virtual day spa of interface design, shedding its former pimply appearance in favor of a tanned, gradient-filled, DOM-powered skin.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder how healthy this all is, or at least up to which extent it remains so. Indeed, no matter how simple an interface is, how short the user licensing agreement looks, how straightforward the billing system seems, there is always someone behind it pull the strings, someone who knows all the tricks, all the issues that can arise. That person, by making an interface or an application simple, can help us use it and alleviate the need for training. By making it too simple, by convincing us everything needs to be like that, is pushing us towards our demise, turning users into a group of blind followers, indoctrinated and, above all, convinced they cannot understand anything by themselves.

Am I advocating nonsensical interfaces? No! The opposite of simple, of spartan, isn’t complex or nonsensical. It can be full-featured, comprehensive, extensive without becoming painful to use or impossible to figure out. Forgetting that essential trait is opening the door to a whole new range of problems, throwing ourselves in the arms of unscrupulous people who are all too ready to provide us with ready-made, seemingly easy solutions.


2005-12-12 05:49:21
Easier is gooder.
Good software doesn't require a manual. Most people don't care how an instrument works, they just want to be able to make it do what they want; like a light switch or a phone.

You don't care about all the intricate processes to call someone in Europe or China, but that doesn't make you stupid. Maybe you're calling to discuss brain surgery.

You don't want the software to get in the way of what you're trying to accomplish.

Rock on!

2005-12-12 06:47:05
Easier Simpler does not mean less powerful...
Truly elegant user interfaces present a very simple interface but allow some way to get to more advanced features by allowing the user to dig deeper. Take OS X for example, many of the users don't even know there is a command prompt, activity monitor, X-Windows, or developer tools. But those in the know can make OS X sing by installing Linux/Unix software such as PostgreSQL, mutt, etc.

In web design, we need to remove the clutter and the overwhelming features and provide just what is needed and at the proper time. You can provide a "more..." or "advanced..." link or provide the additional options via a preference setting. The web is flooded with overly complex websites with horrible navigation and terrible discussion forums. As Web 2.0 takes off and developers start writing to the W3C standards such as xhtml, CSS, etc. We can then build advanced JavaScript AJAX dynamic interfaces which bring things closer to a native app. In addition, web services will interface with native apps. I read your article via an RSS feed like I do with most of my websites. Who wants to browse hundreds of pages when I can find what really interests me quickly and easily then read it.

2005-12-12 07:18:24
Easier is gooder.
"Good software doesn't require a manual"

I really can't agree with this. Good software comes with a manual that tells you how to get the most out of your purchase.

I have Mastering Visual Studio. Does that make VS.NET a bad piece of software?

I use Final Cut Studio, and that comes with six books in the box. Does that make Final Cut Studio bad software?

Some problems are complex by nature, and all the attempt to simplify actually end up getting in the way. The transactional system our company uses implemented its own domain specific language, but did it very poorly. In attempting to shield us from the details of SQL, it creates a poorly optimized, inflexible mess. I continue to beat my head against a wall and asking them, repeatedly, just to let me use SQL instead to create my result sets.

Most software attempts to do something a lot more complex than a telephone or a table lamp. The user interface will naturally reflect that complexity.

2005-12-12 13:41:55
Complexity is a crutch for the vain, oftentimes
Simple is not inflexible, as the above posters have pointed out. The people who argue that "complex functionality demands a complex UI" are often trying to defend themselves from the barbarians at the gates. Why, we can't make things simple or everyone could do my job! (Hello, tax accountants!) That is irrational unless you know that there's nothing to your job or you know that you are the middleman.

Let's look at time-tested interfaces. For example, a car. Is the interface complex? No. Is what the car doing complex? Absolutely.

How about audiophile-grade audio components? Same deal.

Let's be honest and admit that having lots of little buttons speaks to the inner geek who wants ways to demonstrate his or her control and mental acuity. For people who don't want to waste their brain cells on navigation and UI fiddling, a complex UI serves no purpose.

To answer the original question, what we're all suffering from is "interface fatigue", which is induced by unnecessary complexity.

2005-12-13 01:13:10
Easier Simpler does not mean less powerful...

First of all, thank you for taking the time to share your ideas with us!

Your idea of an "Advanced" link or button is one I wholeheartedly support -- although some applications do tend to take it a bit too far. Indeed, it allows for a simple, straightforward interface in normal use, all while keeping the power of the application available to those who wish to access it. Mac OS X, which you use as an example, indeed makes very good use of that philosophy by providing both the Finder and the Terminal to, among other tasks, navigate the filesystem.


2005-12-13 01:19:16
Easier is gooder.

First of all, thank you for posting!

I fully agree that I may not always want to know what is at play when I perform a routine task such as checking my mails or placing a call to China. I do however like to have the option to know, should I wish to, and be able to do so without reverse-engineering the application.

Of course, a developer always needs to decide where to put the line between revealing features and making it easy. My personal feeling is that, especially when it comes to web apps, that line is moved towards the "easy" side of things to an extreme extent, inciting users to believe in their own lack of capabilities and, ultimately, preventing them from making intelligent computing decisions.


2005-12-13 01:25:47
Complexity is a crutch for the vain, oftentimes

First of all, thanks for sharing your feelings with us!

I agree with you to the extent that some interfaces are overly complex and that more is not always to be gained from complex or bewilderingly poor interfaces. There are however situations where a complex interface can be required. To re-use the automobile example you mention, the interface of a car is, indeed complex: it has a wheel, some pedals, about three or four levers for wipers, lights, horn and brake control, as well as a slew of buttons for defrosting, motor control, speed regulation… The very fact that we are used to this interface and consider it "simple" despite its exhaustive nature does prove, in my view, that complex is not always bad. Maybe "complex" is not the word I am after?