Book review: “The Laws of Simplicity”

“Simplicity” almost feels like a magic word, particularly when you’re a product manager or a designer. Last year I wrote about the rise of single purpose apps and mentioned John Maeda’s “Laws of Simplicity”. John Maeda is a well known graphic designer, computer scientist, investor and academic. He’s also an author and I recently read his most popular book, “The Laws of Simplicity”. In this great book, John has outlined 10 laws which define what simplicity actually means and how can you can apply its underlying principles in every day life.

I’ll outline Maeda’s “Ten Laws of Simplicity” and highlight the things I’ve learned from reading his book:

  1. Reduce – “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction”: In short, “reduce” is all about removing functionality as the simplest way to create simplicity. Maeda advises “When in doubt, just remove, but be careful of what you remove.” Maeda uses the “SHE” framework to help make thoughtful reductions (see Fig. 1 below).
  2. Organisation – “Organisation makes a system of many appear fewer”: In order to help people seeing the wood from the trees, Maeda introduces another acronym: “SLIP”. SLIP stands for: Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise (see Fig. 2 below).
  3. Time – “Savings in time feel like simplicity”: The underlying idea about reducing the user frustration caused by time wasted. When any interaction with products or services happens quickly, we attribute this efficiency to the perceived simplicity of experience. If speeding up a process isn’t an option, Maeda suggests that giving extra care to a customer will make the experience of waiting more tolerable.
  4. Learn – “Knowledge makes everything simpler”: Maeda introduces another acronym here, called “BRAIN”. BRAIN stands for: Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never (see Fig. 3 below). He also points out that the best designers are those who marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately.
  5. Differences – “Simplicity and complexity need each other”: The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. While technology is growing in complexity, there’s a clear benefit to differentiating by offering products which are simple and easy to use. That said, establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicit form.
  6. Context – “What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely no peripheral”: This law relates to a common trade-off between providing people with direction versus leaving them to explore for themselves. “How directed can I stand to feel?” versus “How directionless can I afford to be?”
  7. Emotion – “More emotions are better than less”: Even though simplification is the core premise of Maeda’s book, he makes the case for adding functionality – and thus violating the first law of “Reduce” – arguing that this is allowed for the “right kind of more: feel, and feel for.”
  8. Trust – “In simplicity we trust”: The law of “trust” is about the tension between the effort required to learn about a system on the one hand and the trust offered by the system on the other.
  9. Failure – “Some things can never be made simple”: Maeda acknowledges that not all attempts to create simple products will succeed. He states that “there’s always an ROF (Return on Failure) when you try to simplify – which is to learn from your mistakes.”
  10. The One – Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful: The tenth and last law of simplicity is to capture a number of ideas which Maeda felt didn’t fit neatly into a single law. He therefore devised three “keys”: Away, Open and Power (see Fig. 4 below).

Main learning point: Even though “The Laws of Simplicity” was published nearly ten years ago, its content still feels incredibly timely and relevant. If anything, for me the book makes it clear that ‘simplicity’ is not as straightforward as it might sound. Maeda provides some key principles that underpin the concept of simplicity, whilst being honest about some of the challenges involved in simplifying products.

 

Fig. 1 – SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Shrink: As technology is shrinking, i.e. becoming ‘smaller’ and yet more powerful, this approach is about designs conveying the impression of being smaller, lesser and humbler. This means that as a user your expectations of the product will still be fulfilled even though you might not think so, purely from looking at the product.
  • Hide: “Hide the complexity through brute-force methods.” The Swiss army knife is a great example of this technique since only the tool that you wish to use is exposed, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.
  • Embody: Maeda makes the point that as features go into hiding and products shrink, it becomes ever more important to embed the product with a sense of the value that is lost after Shrink and Hide. It’s about creating the perception of quality, which can be done through marketing or product design.

Fig. 2 – SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Sort: Sort and group information
  • Label: Each group needs a relevant name
  • Integrate: Whenever possible, integrate groups that appear significantly like each other
  • Prioritise: Using Pareto’s 80/20 rule is a helpful tool when deciding where to start

Fig. 3 – BRAIN (Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • BASICS are the beginning
  • REPEAT yourself often
  • AVOID creating desperation
  • INSPIRE with examples
  • NEVER forget to repeat yourself

Fig. 4 – Three keys (Away, Open, Power) – Taken from: John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity

  • Key 1 – Away: The main principle here is that “more appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.” When you do outsourcing or moving a task it’s important to retain a level of communication with this task.
  • Key 2 – Open: “Openness simplifies complexity.” Examples of this approach are “open source” technology and Application Programming Interfaces (‘APIs)’. Public availability is the main characteristic that both examples have in common.
  • Key 3 – Power: “Use less, gain more.” This principle is quite literally about the dependency on (battery) power for a lot of devices and technologies. The idea is that not having enough (battery) power doesn’t necessarily need to be total disaster: “in the field of design there is the belief that with more constraints, better solutions are revealed.”

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Maeda
  2. http://usabilitypost.com/2010/02/07/the-laws-of-simplicity/
  3. http://betterexplained.com/articles/understanding-the-pareto-principle-the-8020-rule/
  4. http://www.ted.com/talks/john_maeda_on_the_simple_life?language=en
  5. http://www.quora.com/What-are-examples-of-emotional-design
  6. http://thenextweb.com/apps/2012/02/15/review-how-a-simple-list-app-called-clear-may-change-how-we-use-our-devices-forever/

Image credits: http://www.tedxtokyo.com/en/talk/john-maeda/

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