Simplicity Versus Complexity

Google’s unassumingly clean UI sits atop mindbogglingly massive infrastructure. Clarke Ching observes that people value this simplicity, and he observes that this value may contradict the idea that people see complex things as clever.

I don’t see the contradiction.

A distinction needs to be made here between two qualities:

  • Perceived simplicity
  • Perceived cleverness

How to achieve perceived simplicity? Following conventional usability principles would be a good start. Google’s pristine UI is the reason it is perceived as simple, and it certainly fits in with the standard usability . (In fact, there is a good argument that traditional usability principles place too much emphasis on the lowest common denominator at the expense of power users. But that’s another rant for another day.)

How to achieve perceived cleverness? A much harder question. This is an under-researched area. There is a lot of relevant work on the related notion of perceived trust, but I haven’t seen much about perceived cleverness. In any event, it’s certainly different from perceived simplicity. I think it’s sometimes valued and sometimes not. I would say there are several responses to perceived cleverness:

  • Perceived cleverness viewed as valuable when it actually gives value to the user. This is the case for google…the perceived cleverness comes from the clever algorithms that give people the results they want. Note it does not from the mindboggling infrastructure – which is invisible. Nor does it come from the clean UI – although I do think the UI accentuates the perceived cleverness by adding a sense of cool arrogance, as in “yeah, I scanned 4 billion pages in 10 milliseconds and I’ve still got a hip white background that makes me look like I’m straight out of 1997”.
  • Perceived cleverness viewed as a bit cringeworthy when it makes no difference to the user. If you add some flashy metrics to the status bar of your word processor, users won’t particularly care very much, other than seeing it as a bit pretentious. You could achieve the same effect by giving them a quick tour of your garage full of cables and motherboards.
  • Perceived cleverness viewed as evil when it prevents the user from achieving their goal. Flash animation, say n’more.

In Google’s case, it has achieved both perceived simplicity and perceived cleverness. However, any combination of simplicity-complexity and dumbness-cleverness is possible. And remember that old adage: it’s better to be seen as simple and clever than complex and dumb.