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The Complexity Curve: How to Design for Simplicity (SXSW, March 2012)


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Interfaces and devices are providing more and more power and functionality to people, and in many cases this additional power is accompanied by increasing complexity. Although people have more experience and are more sophisticated, it still takes time to learn new interfaces, information, and interactions. Although we are able to learn and use these often difficult interfaces, we increasingly seek and appreciate simplicity.

The Complexity Curve describes how a project moves from boundless opportunity and wonderful ideas to requirements checklists and constraints then finally (but only rarely) to simplicity and elegance. Where many projects call themselves complete when the necessary features have been included, few push forward and strive to deliver the pleasing and delightful experiences that arise from simplicity, focus, and purpose.

David M. Hogue, Ph.D. - VP of Experience Design, applied psychologist, and adjunct faculty member at San Francisco State University - introduces the Complexity Curve, discuss why our innovative ideas seem to fade over the course of a project, explain why "feature complete" is not the same as "optimal experience", and offer some methods for driving projects toward simplicity and elegance.

Comments on twitter at #SXsimplerUX

Audio available at:

Published in: Design, Technology, Education
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The Complexity Curve: How to Design for Simplicity (SXSW, March 2012)

  1. COMPLEXITYsimplicity
  2. The Complexity Curve Designing for Simplicity @DaveHogue #SXsimplerUX
  3. WelcomeDavid M. Hogue, Ph.D.VP XD at FluidSan Francisco
  4. Complexity is easy.We can make anything complex.
  5. Even our wristwatches.
  6. Simple to read, difficult to set.
  7. Not much has changed…
  8. Daylight Saving Time Starts tonight at 2:00 am.Do you know how to set your watch?
  9. To make something simpler, we first need to define complexity, which is, ironically, not simple.
  10. What is complexity?
  11. complexusentwined; twisted together (Latin)
  12. “… I know it when I see it …”Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart(Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964)
  13. Three perspectives: Designers People (Users) Scientists
  14. Designers Appearance Aesthetics Style
  15. Space
  16. Noise
  17. Hierarchy
  18. Designers Functionality Context Flow
  19. Interactivity
  20. Dark Pattern?
  21. What is the goal?
  22. Structure
  23. Flow
  24. PeopleRelevance Difficulty Clarity
  25. Clutter
  26. Difficulty
  27. Confusion
  28. Scientists Chaos
  29. Weather
  30. Edward Lorenz, Sc.D. dt/dx = σ(y−x) dt/dy = x(τ−z)−y dt/dz = xy− βz
  31. Lorenz Attractor
  32. ChaosDynamical systems Deterministic Not predictable
  33. Chaos Self-organizing Emergent structureSensitivity to perturbation
  34. Butterfly Effect
  35. Some things arenaturally complex. So why discuss chaos?
  36. Complex systems that appearto have an impossibly largenumber of variables can actuallybe described and understoodwith remarkably few.
  37. The Complexity CurveIn which the level of complexity increases the further we get into a design project.
  38. Complexity Curve
  39. Complexity Curve
  40. Where does complexity come from?
  41. Let’s skip the obvious:Disregard for 790 Flickr groups with “bad design” in the name
  42. Designers Models Patterns Scope CreepConstraints & Requirements
  43. Expectations v. RealityMental Conceptual SystemModel Model Model(user) (interface) (device)
  44. Mental Model Mismatch Impedes progress Interrupts focus Incorrect direction
  45. Designers Models Patterns Scope CreepConstraints & Requirements
  46. Copying Patterns
  47. Anti-Patterns
  48. Dark Patterns
  49. New and different
  50. Designers Models Patterns Scope CreepConstraints & Requirements
  51. Scope Creep (Jog or Run) Forgotten features Absent stakeholders Vendor systems
  52. Executive Bungee-Jumping
  53. Designers Models Patterns Scope CreepConstraints & Requirements
  54. Constraints & Requirements Technical constraints Legal requirements Business unit requirements
  55. System Model ExposureWhere is the current price per share?Why cant I buy a certain total value?
  56. PeopleDifficultyExpertise
  57. Do not conflatecomplexity with difficulty.Difficult tasks often appear complex only until we have learnedthe necessary knowledge and skills.
  58. High cognitive loads feel difficult. Understanding and memoryProblem-solving and decision-making Associations and connections
  59. PeopleDifficultyExpertise
  60. Developing ExpertiseDeclarative Procedural AutomaticityKnowledge Knowledge (Habits)
  61. Novices & Experts
  62. Technology Limitations
  63. Limitations Materials ManufacturingTechnological capability
  64. Inexorably Forward
  65. What can be done about complexity?
  66. Not everything should be simple.
  67. Law of ParsimonyAll things being equal, simpler solutionsare generally better than complex ones.
  68. The Complexity Curve In which the level of complexitymay be decreased if we continue to iterate and refine the design.
  69. Complexity Curve
  70. Complexity Curve
  71. Technology Advances
  72. Materials and Manufacturing
  73. Patience
  74. Forward Forces
  75. PeopleMotivation Transfer Support
  76. A sufficiently motivated person will tolerate: Complexity Difficulty Confusion
  77. Sometimes we need to teach people, because we cannot make it any simpler.
  78. Transfer ofknowledge and skills Instruction Demonstration Analogy
  79. DesignLeverage our ignorance Place people first Use mental models Focus & Reduce Iterate
  80. Leverage our ignorance. Often our best ideas arise before wehave become shackled by constraints. Write them down before we know why we can’t do them. Then return to them.
  81. Put people first. Motivation Behavior Emotion Creativity
  82. Use mental models. Match conceptual and mental models Hide system models
  83. Mental models evolve
  84. Conceptual models evolve
  85. Focus ReduceAttention Effort Flow Time Errors
  86. However, Simplicity is not just about reduction.Do not confuse subtraction with simplification.
  87. “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
  88. Complexity moves.
  89. Shift the complexity…
  90. …away from the person.
  91. Law of Conservation of Complexity
  92. Feature completeis not experience optimized.
  93. Iteration IncubationCross-pollination Observation
  94. New solutions…
  95. …emerge.
  96. None of these solutions,advances, and innovationscould have been possible without...
  97. Critical ThinkingA persistent effort to examine any belief, idea, or fact in terms of the available evidence.
  98. We know that designers: Ask questions Gather information Identify problems Generate ideas Evaluate options Communicate solutions
  99. Critical thinkers go further: Ask questions Gather information Identify problems Recognize assumptions Assess relationships Generate ideas Evaluate options Consider consequences Communicate solutions
  100. Designing for simplicity is not about Checklists Formulas Patterns Rules
  101. It is about Thinking and reasoningUnderstanding the problem Analyzing and optimizing
  102. So, how do we make stuff simpler?
  103. Ten Opportunities to Simplify
  104. “Messy & Confusing” Irrelevance Disorganization Ambiguity
  105. Indirect Action Abstracted DisconnectedIncreased cognitive load
  106. Everything to Everyone Too many variables Too little focus
  107. Design by Consensus Scope creep (or worse…)
  108. “Nice to have…” Noise Clutter Excess
  109. Copying Solutions Misapplied patterns
  110. Map Structure toOrganization or Technology Exposes the system model
  111. Leading with Technology Solving the wrong (or non-existent) problems
  112. A solution looking for a problem?
  113. Or a tremendous opportunity?
  114. Designing for Yourself Ignoring the person’s mental models
  115. Accepting Assumptions Not collecting data Absence of critical thinking
  116. It may be complex if…“Messy & Confusing” Copying SolutionsIndirect Action Map to OrganizationEverything to Everyone Lead with TechnologyDesign by Consensus Design for Yourself“Nice to Have…” Accept Assumptions
  117. Thanks!David M. Hogue, Ph.D.VP XD at FluidSan Francisco
  118. The Complexity Curve Designing for Simplicity
  119. Credits