What Makes It Simple?

Simplicity is a commonly recognized characteristic for a user-friendly product. if a product is with useful functions and an elegant exterior design but it could not be used without thinking, it would not be a product designed by User Centered Design concept since it ensures usability in products by lots of developed process and principles. The design process includes: 1. Observation; 2. Ideation; 3. Prototype; 4. Test. A good product’s interaction with user should be clear and easy enough to lower the threshold for using it and further make it possible for this product to achieve business success.

However, simplicity for business’s goal is only a small fraction of its huge positive effects on human society and culture. Simplicity is also a prerequisite for digital products that serve as substrates for human abstract semiotic and cognitive system. The abstract meaning in our mind needs to be reflected in some substantial physical structures in order to preserve it so that we can pass our knowledge from generation to generation. Also, these physical structures help human ease our “memory job” so that we can get more space to explore new ideas, although it’s possible for us become more and more rely on these substrates for our meaning system, which conversely limits our creativity. What if digital books, like Kindle or books in websites, is complex and users need to read an instruction in order to read books on it? Many users will choose to use paper book and the remediation of book will not as influential as it is nowadays.

For designers, engineers and computer scientists, simplicity is not simple at all. There are tons of principles, patterns and hints to make sure its realization and there is a long history of development of them. Why making a product simple is so difficult? From my perspective, one of reasons is that the product itself is not simple. In some people’s opinion, the simple objects are with simple design. Although it might be true in some traditional artifacts, even the most “simplest” digital products are developed by sophisticated design, receiving help from antecessor products. From a “simple” and small audio memo application, we can find encoding and decoding process which are elaborated in Information Theory. There is transducer to transform human voice into binary code to be stored in the virtual memo.

In my opinion, the design concept enabled “computers” to become more than big calculators is abstraction. The calculation of numbers in an original computer is concrete, but the operation for our cognitive representation in today’s computers is abstract. It’ quite counterintuitive in the beginning since we always think that the thing more precise and concrete will be easily implementable and abstraction will mess things up. As mentioned in the book The Great Principles of Computing, “abstraction is one of the most fundamental powers of the human brain. By bringing out the essence and suppressing detail, an abstraction offers a simple set of operations that apply to all the cases.” Abstraction is a tool helping us transcend physical limitation and stimulate our imagination. How can our voice and face appear in a cell phone thousand miles away? It is because the abstraction. The phone abstract (encode) our voice and face and quantize them to be proper to be presented in pixel screen in another cell phone.

Simplicity sometimes stems from difficulties and this is the history of the development of digital products.



Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles (essay). Read Parts 1-2.

Bill Moggridge, ed., Designing Interactions. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. Excepts from Chapters 1 and 2: The Designs for the “Desktop Computer” and the first PCs.

Peter J. Denning and Craig H. Martell. Great Principles of Computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015, chapters 7 (Memory) and 9 (Design). [Concluding background on computer system design.]