Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. -Mark Twain
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Book Review: Simple and Usable

Author: Giles Colborne
Publish Date: September 2010
URL: @ Amazon
Atul's Rating: *****

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction." says Albert Einstein.

Most of us have also asked the question, or a different form of it, sometime or the other - "Why can't one simply walk into Mordor?" Er ... well, maybe not exactly that, but surely this - "Why don't we simply ride the bus to office ?" If you in any city in the world, Singapore being one of the notable exceptions, you will have very likely asked this question. Riding a bus not being so simple for various reasons, you will continue to ask this question for a while, and one of the ways to change that is by reading this book.

If you are into software, and develop for the Web as well as Mobile devices, then this book is definitely for you. It is not of encyclopaedic proportions, but has the most important things addressed simply. It is a great read for designers and non-designers alike. It is more about perspective than skills.

When you're designing any piece of technology, there are at least three perspectives: the manager's, the engineer's, and the user's. This book is about the user's perspective: it's about making things feel simple to use - isn't that very important? Also, we know that it is not simple to please everybody. This book is concerned primarily with the experience of mainstream users.

The book begins by underlining the power of simplicity.

  • People love simple, dependable, adaptable products
  • Increasing complexity is unsustainable
  • All that unnecessary power comes at a price
  • Simple does not necessarily mean minimal
  • Beware of fake simplicity - the 'fat loss pill' type
  • Wizards are simple only if they are short, else they are cumbersome
  • Don't shift the responsibility of failure on the user
  • You can't stick simplicity on top of a User Interface

Page 15 has a nifty little graph to help Product Managers prioritise features of a product. Those that are both - important and practical.

The book teaches you to answer 'Whats core':

  • The short way: Write down a one-line description, in the simplest terms possible, of what you are creating, along with a few guidelines you want to stick to.
  • The longer and better way: describe the experience you want the users to have. That means describing the users' world and how your design fits in. This works well when designing something big (like an entire website or a mobile device) because it makes you think through the problem in more detail.

Also, every design is a solution that has to sit within constraints. The best way to begin is by understanding those constraints. Then you can ensure your design fits into the spaces in people's lives.

The best place to watch users is in their natural environment. Is the user multi-tasking, is he out into the sun, what is the likelyhood of the user being distracted in open-plan offices - high, will the user be carrying other items at the same time - for example shopping bags or using trolley while using the to-do or shopping-list app, and so on. The user experience needs to be simple enough to work among the distractions and fit into the cracks between interruptions.

Mr. Giles writes: "Ignore the expert users - they often want features that would horrify mainstream users. If you want to make something simple, design for the multitude. Mass appeal comes from focusing on the mainstream."

Now, I like to tinker around with things - and if you are like me, you do too - so I didn't particularly like this advice of his, but on reflection, it does make perfect sense if you really want to 'augment' the way people live and not 'mould' the way they do.

Page 30 has comprehensive and very useful advice on what mainstream users want. Most importantly, the design should meet the emotional needs of the users - they want to be in control of the outcomes. The difference between Usability and Simplicity is subtle, not easily understood, and well explained in the book. At times, it means reaching for extreme targets.

A great quote in the book by a great man goes thus:

"When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don't really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it's really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That's sort of the middle, and that's where most people stop. But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works." Steve Jobs (quoted in Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything by Steven Levy)

And Mr. Giles says:

"In my experience, roughly the first third of any project is spent trying to figure out what's really important. It's a nerve-wracking time, as complexity seems to spiral and there's no solution in sight. Sticking with it is the first and most important step in achieving simplicity. Don't rush into design. Understanding what's core takes time."

If you have read through here, you have covered glimpses of the first two parts of the book. The next major portion of the book is dedicated to elucidiating the four strategies of design - Remove, Organize, Hide and Displace. There is a lot of advice in there, not just the do's but also the dont's. There are also useful comparison tables like on Page 164 that gives the designer a handy guide about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the mobile and the desktop platforms and the way they are used in the real world.

The last part advises you about the law of conservation of complexity and that the 'Simplicity happens in the user's head' and to 'Give users enough space to use their imagination'.

You learn a lot in the book and Mr. Giles has put in nifty little full-page illustrations in color that have pertinent captions and imagery that is highly co-related to what you learnt in the previous pages. Good examples and analogies abound. I had a feeling that I learnt better from this book than a few others I have read.

You will remember that we started this review with a question. No, the book doesn't answer that question directly. But if we reflect on the contents and build simplicity into the products and services we build as part of our work, then we will be actively contributing towards making this world a simpler place.

A lovely book to curl up with for the designer and the non-designer alike. My thanks to a friend for lending his copy for such an experience :)

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