Simplicity vs Complexity

The other day, while a bunch of us were out drinking beer, a friend of mine slipped a phrase about how he didn’t agree with the tendency of dumbing things down for all sorts of users (or something to that effect). Because he is a smart fellow, I immediately dismissed the urge to call him stupid :-) and instead put the thought on the back-burner where it has been slowly simmering ever since.

Just now I remembered that a few weeks back I had a discussion of this very topic with my former co-worker. My own point at that time was very much along the same lines. Specifically, that although, on one hand, I love the fact that I don’t have to be constantly peering into the map fearing that I’ll miss my turn while driving—we have signs on every turn (or in some cases onboard navigation systems) telling us what to do next, but on the other hand, I am afraid these everyday conveniences take away something important from us. They rid us of that invaluable ordeal of the raw unprocessed life.

Take penicillin (my favorite metaphor for progress)—humans sure do live longer, but we also have even more illnesses that we cannot cure now. Are we sure that by letting the drug help us fight the illness we haven’t robbed our bodies of the chance to prepare itself for the fight against some new quickly mutating virus? Seemingly, by “simplifying” our lives we actually make them more difficult! How do we avoid this downward spiral? How do we make our lives more comfortable but not get dumber?

I do believe that simplicity is the main tool in this endeavor. Mother nature (and fellow- humans) will continue to throw new challenges at us. We want to make sure that our newly developed ways of dealing with those challenges are simple enough to be easily reproduced. We should learn to depend on our ways more than we depend on our tools. It is pathetic when a grown man, stranded in the bushes, cannot open a can without a can-opener.

But what is it that I’m really talking about? I know computers, let’s talk about computers. Take your average office application—MS Word. How many features does Word have? How many of its features do you personally know and use? Do you use fields or forms? Cross-references? Watermarks? How about AutoSummarize (and why the hell is it spelled like this?), Merge Documents? How many of you even used your own custom styles? Does all this make your writing easier? I don’t know about you, but I find myself using TeX more and more often if I need to write a paper. I find TeX to be easier than Word, how about that!? And Word—with all its WISIWIG and whatnot—is supposed to make writing easier!

Now let’s look at your VCR (if you still have one). How many features does it have, how many of them do you use? Does it have VCR Plus+? Most probably it does because “VCR Plus+ is available in all major brands of VCRs,” according to Do you know what it does? Well, me too. But do you actually use this feature? I don’t, and I have very little desire to even try. I’m looking at the remote now and here are some of the buttons I am noticing: C/A skip, M/A skip, SAP, ADD/DLT—what the hell are these for?! Does it make me think harder? I don’t think so, I think this unnecessary complexity is exactly why I feel a certain dumbness when I try to program my VCR—a dumbness of whoever designed this uninspiring UI.

So, what do you think? Simple of complex?

December 10, 2005 |

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About Me

George Sudarkoff Climber of rocks, maker of things, husband of wife and father of kids. Manage DevOps @SurveyMonkey. Views are my own, but damn they are good views!