The Principles Of Simplicity

Last week Ken Segall, former Apple adman and creator of the iconic “Think Different” campaign, wrote an article in The Guardian asking if Apple had lost its simplicity.

The article was an assessment of certain changes within the company that have happened under the leadership of Tim Cook since the death of Steve Jobs.  The conclusion of the article was that Apple is now much more complex, both in terms of its business practices and its product range, but that that movement away from their original principles has been as a result of market change and demand.

Segall also points out that simplicity is a subjective thing.  Sure, Apple isn’t as simple as it once was, but it is still ahead of many of its competitors.

I’ve had a similar experience in my own job.  I moved in to a role where we were using a spreadsheet for a data collection activity.  The spreadsheet form was horrible for a number of reasons, and we had to send back 90% because they were not completed correctly.  I spent a long time redesigning the form with a few principles in mind.

The first was that we would not ask technical questions.  We would make them simple “plain English” questions without acronyms.  Ideally, if we didn’t need to ask a question, we wouldn’t.  (The thinking behind the latter was that someone can’t answer a question wrong if we don’t ask it.)  The third thing we did was improve the user interface (if such a thing exists in a spreadsheet form) by making better use of colour and spacing to make the form look simpler.

The last thing we did was introduce a checklist that used rules to analyse the data provided and displayed a green tick for good data or a red cross for bad data.  We then gave the data providers a simple instruction – if the form has red crosses on it, we don’t want to see it.

We reduced the number of forms received with errors from 90% to 30% within a month.  We did a bit more work and reduced that figure to a consistent 10-14% every month.  Our record was 4%.  The reason for that 10-14% was people ignoring the checklist.  To remove this, we sort an automated approach with implementation currently be attempted by someone other than myself, and they’re not doing a great job.

The thing we’ve found is that driving for that perfection is requiring us to sacrifice the simplicity that has produced such great results thus far.

It’s an issue with adding things.  Adding more features simply increases the number of things that can go wrong.  Take Samsung’s “wave at the phone to wake it up”.  Pointless, unless you’re eating ribs.  But it’s a software addition, maybe even a hardware addition that can go wrong despite it being pointless.  There was a canned drink dispenser at my local sports centre that no longer just dropped your can to the bottom, but actually went up, grabbed it and chucked it in to a drawer at the side.  Again, this just added more to go wrong in a move away from simplicity.

More than most, I’m a sucker for development.  I love new technology and what it can deliver.  I think the key to it, though, is sticking with original principles of what you want that technology (or, I guess, anything else in life) to achieve.  Most of us want our technology to make our lives simpler, and I think that the key to that is often making sure that that technology is rooted in simplicity itself.  To do what we want doesn’t always take the most complex of things.

I’ve been in search of stones
Making up the pavement of less traveled roads
Mining for treasure deep in my bones
That I never found

Went looking for reverence
Tried to find it in a bottle
And came back again
High on a hash pipe of good intent
But it only brought me down

Tried institutions of the mind and soul
It only taught me what I should not know
Oh and the answer well who would have guessed
Could be something as simple as this
Something as simple as this

Traveled to each ocean’s end
Saw all seven wonders, trying to make some sense
Memorized the mantra Confucius said
But it only let me down

Tried absolution of the mind and soul
It only led me where I should not go
Oh and the answer well how could I miss
Something as simple as this
Something as simple as this

I’ve been falling, crashing, breaking
All the while you were stood here waiting
For me girl

Tried liberation of my own free will
But it left me looking to get higher still.
Oh and the answer well who would have guessed
Could be something as simple as this
God knows how I could have missed
Something as simple as this

Simple As This by Jake Bugg


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