May 15, 2009 / notes
Notes on "Meeting the Challenge of Simplicity"

I recently watched a video on InfoQ of Giles Colborne give a talk on simplicity and user experience. Whilst I watched it, I took notes. Putting these study notes on my blog might be useful to someone...


Mentions the book "What Do People Do All Day". Well recommended.

  • The ZX81 took away his childhood desire to be an astronaught!
  • He looks at how people use technology in houses, workplaces, streets and stores.
  • Runs and
  • Clients include Noka and the BBC.
  • They focus on turning peoples understanding into great user interfaces for phones, desktop, web etc.

How User Experiences are Changing

  • User experiences are getting smaller.
  • In the old days, everyone wanted a "portal".
  • Yahoo! were leaders back then.
  • Until Google came along.
  • Google is simpler, with a smaller, more targeted user experience.

  • is one of his favourite web sites (sarcastic!)

  • He says there are 113 links to tell us what the weather is going to be like.

  • Compares to a desktop widget with no links.

  • People are crying out for less.

  • Small, compact, simple user experiences are becoming popular.

  • One reason is that people dont' have time.

  • They need to do more things in less time.

  • They don't have time to "play" with software.

  • No-one reads the manual. Noone.

  • The software needs to be it's own documentation.

  • Mobile computing platforms are hugely popular and used.

  • A task needs to be completed quickly on mobile device.

  • It's the platform everybody uses.

  • Most of the planet are using portable devices.

  • This makes people want less.

  • A computer is a consumer device, not a specialist device.

  • That's why people love simple interfaces.

What is Simplicity?

  • Isn't simplicity just a new word for Usability?
  • No. It's slightly different.

  • ISO 9241-11 definition of usability is a "combination of efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction".

  • Traditional systems (work based sofware) are highly efficient and effective, but satisfaction isn't a real factor.

  • Call center usability has more focus on efficiency than effectiveness and satisfaction.

  • Shaving 2 seconds of a call saves 100,000s of $$$ a year.

  • Web sites target effectiveness and satisfaction.

  • Efficiency isn't such a factor.

  • Simplicity implies larger satisfaction.

  • Simplicity is not about removing features.

  • MS Word has a lot of features.

  • Microsoft Write was crap, removing all the features didn't help it.

Looking at what it is NOT...

  • Adding instructions is not simplicity. Telling people what to do doesn't make it simpler.
  • Making something into steps - Wizards. This sounds like simplicity, but it isn't really.
  • The experience of using a Wizard doesn't feel simple. It feels forced and contrived.
  • You've no idea where the computer is taking you, so anxiety is increased.

Quote: "The achievement of maximum effect with minimum means" - Dr Koichi Kawana

  • What does that mean?
  • Imagine driving, and traffic lights turn green as you appraoch them. The experience is very simple. * If they turn red as you approach, the experience is complicated and frustrating.
  • Simplicity is referring to the experience that we give users, not the artifacts.
  • Simplicity is difficult to pin down. You can't see it. It's elusive.
  • User Experience occurs at many levels, and software is only one.
  • Program model-mental model, visual output, input mechanisms, physical dimensions and handling etc.
  • Devices exist in a context/eco system. iPod example - when it first took off it seems remarkable.
  • Part of it's eco system was iTunes. Anyone could get their music on to their iPhone using iTunes.
  • This context was very important.
  • "The achievement of maximum effect with minimum means" is about what the user is doing.

Building in Simplicity

  • How can we build-in simplicity?
  • Another good book - "The Laws Of Simplicity".
  • Process for simplicity is a bunch of guidelines that you try and follow in a more or less specific order.
  • Example, when working for online bank, he saw a date control that contributed to a frustrating user experience.

Rule: You have to begin with the context.

  • Select a month, select a year was for chosing a bank statement. There are lots of ways this can fail in context (no statements for given date.)
  • Understanding context is understanding the effect a user is trying to produce.
  • Ask, What does the user know? use that information to deliver a better experience.
  • Simple interfaces require smarter software.
  • Put the intelligence back into the software.
  • Things go wrong when work is pushed on to end users.

Rule: Just Simple Enough. Don't over simplify.

  • 3 step process. Shrink, Hide, Embody.
  • Drop down menu in UI is an example. Pushing functionality out of the way. Leave room for what people want to do.
  • Remove the irrelevant, emphasise what matters.

A travel planner is a very complex problem. It's very unstructured. Different people have very different goals. People plan to different levels of details. A wedding trip is very different to a full holiday, for example. Time, place and money all there. Deciding between options.

Laying all that out in a meaningful way was very difficult. Then they realised that all the complexity was inside the users head. Users were just creating lists. The resultant travel planner was just a list of stuff! They could just drag stuff onto a list, sort and group it. A very simple solution.

  • A complex task can sometimes demand a very simple solution. You can let people have the knowledge, not the software.
  • Orgainising information can make it much more accessible.
  • Tidying a UI can sometimes simplify it, because of the users perception.
  • Waiting takes away the sense of simplicity. Don't make people wait.

Book: "The Humane Interface" by Jeff Raskin

  • Jeff found a way of making a computer appear to start instantly by showing a picture of the screen before the loading was happening (I think Apple do this).
  • Taking away waiting time gives the sense of simplicity.


  • We are not like the people who use our software.
  • Testing requires real people. Some end users.
  • If you can't do that, then you can count clicks.
  • Another method is Goms KLM. Keybaord presses, mouse repositioning, moving hand from keyboard to mouse, system reponse time, user thinking time.
  • Adding up all this gives a measure of efficiency.
  • Over and above standard click tracking, it includes more subjective experience into account.

"People will do anyting to avoid thinking." That includes pretending the sofwtare is broken.

  • Understand the users process and context
  • Shrink hide embody
  • Organize the UI
  • Eliminate waiting
  • Testing

Warning Signs

Warning bells should ring when people say stuff like

  • "We'll put in a linear step by step process". Controlling the user is a bad thing.
  • "We'll let the user decide, let them customize...". That's not making a decision, don't make users configure sotware.
  • "What if the user wanted to...". What if's during design meetings are when user interaces and features expand out of control. You need to go away and find out before building.
  • "Instructions" System should correspond to mental model. Instruction indicate a problem.
  • "Long lists" People lose themsleves in long lists! People lose focus when reading long lists. Simplicity gives way to hypnotism.
  • "Home Pages". The desktop is the worst part of the WIMP OS. It's the place where noone wants to be. Noone comes to the computer to use their desktop. It's a place wheres stuff accrues. What would happen if you didn't have a desktop. Home pages are the same. Software should start in a place that most people want to be.
  • "Error messages". Something has gone wrong. The computer invites people to get into a fight with the software.

  • Simplicity is a type of usability. It's not all of usabiltiy. It's important as we try and cram technology into more areas of our lives.

  • You need to put in effort. You need to understand the solution up front.

  • You have to exercise constraint. Don't be lured by complexity.

  • Smarter programming, not always more programming.


  • Minimalism is very pleasing.
  • "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but where there is nothing more to take away."
  • Avoid modes. Somthings are inherently modal (photoshop).

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