Is Product Simplicity a Reasonable Goal?

User interfaces are kind of a big deal nowadays in the valley; coming up with something minimalistic, simple, and takes the least amount of clicks/taps from the user is press conference material from the big companies, and the crux of every startup attempting to rethink calendars or email and every other default productivity app on our smartphones. Simplicity is also the basis for a bunch of high profile companies: your Vines, Instagrams, and Dropboxes exist mostly because they started by doing one thing simply.

Slate draws a powerful insight from this trend: there is diminishing returns to simplification, and at some point the product is so simple that even if it was possible to make it even simpler, the effort is likely not worth it. In fact, once the base product is refined to the point where it attracts a sizable user base, the only way the really grow the product is by adding new features and complicating the previously one-dimensional product.

I remember when Google first released Plus, the big feature that put it over Facebook was the ability to define circles for your relationships. Back then I noted that the UI was actually quite fun on the desktop, but the big issue was (and still is) the active management of your circles and the complexity of privacy settings. Google took on the really hard problem of modeling the complexity of human relationships, and I’m not convinced anybody else has figured out a better interface (or properly incentivized friend list maintenance).

The world is a messy, complex, sophisticated place. In today’s software landscape of the customerification of everything, simplification makes for a great story[1] but is, at best, a small subset of reality and a small corner of the rich tapestry of life.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. Also makes for some passionate discussion on the American tax code.