Image Source: The New Yorker

Consider this: you and your spouse are about to take a long weekend trip by yourselves for the first time since the birth of your child. You have hired your parents to stay at your home and babysit. Your flight is on schedule and you’ve hit the airport bar to begin the celebration of escape with pre-flight cocktails. The phone rings. Your mother is on the other end, wondering how to turn on the TV so that your son can watch his favorite show.

Normally, this wouldn’t be such an issue, but you’ve spent the better part of a year making small modifications, updates, and upgrades to optimize your home entertainment system (and your monthly bill). Now, what seems so simple to you seems like brain surgery to someone else. So where do you start?

How do you take something complex and turn it into something simple?

Mind the (user) gap

“What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read…if they can’t even fit inside the building?”

— Derek Zoolander, Zoolander

Thousands of people (myself included) have dedicated their professional lives to crafting the ideal experience, object, or plan for the world to enjoy. We create requirements and directives. We abide by, (and often break) the time-tested rules of design as determined long ago by forefathers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Paul Rand. But at the end of the day, the result is subject to individual preferences. What works for one person may not be acceptable to another.

As experience and product designers we aspire to keep things simple while also considering additional key factors:

  • Stakeholders
  • Budget
  • Time
  • Research
  • Development process
  • Design details

These factors cannot be outright ignored, but the key is to find the right balance between them. Obsessing over any one or few of them can quickly complicate any attempt at simplicity. For example, too much research can keep a company mired in second guessing and self-doubt at the expense of any type of resolution or innovation.

Focus your efforts

“Secret of punch is to make whole power of body fit into one inch.”

— Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid

Most of the time, the hardest thing about accomplishing a task is just getting started. I spent most of my summer slowly picking away at re-staining the deck outside my house, and it’s still not entirely complete as we head into workless winter months. Not until I thought of the process in simpler, smaller parts of the whole was I able to get going and see the progress sooner than I realized.

Want to wash the car? Take out the hose.

Want to repaint the kitchen? Buy the paint.

Many ideas die because the creator was too busy thinking about how or why to do something that they overlooked the value of taking a first step with the goal of getting a reaction. Based on feedback from this first step, you can adapt or stay the course. You’ll never know if the color of the new kitchen is going to work until you put some paint on the wall.

How do you keep yourself, or an entire team, in the right frame of mind to keep things simple? Fortunately, tools exist to help you do that. One of them, from the product design world, is the design sprint. The process guides a project team to simplify the focus of product design on the customer. And the four-day structure by its nature activates decision making. The outcome of the design sprint, an MLP (minimum lovable product), keeps the team focused on delivering the most lovable version of the product with the least amount of effort — which highlights simplicity because you cannot over-engineer an MLP with too many features. The customer focus, the rapid test-and-learn nature of the design sprint, and the MLP all act as built-in safeguards against complicating both design and development.

Get over yourself

“Don’t use seven words when four will do.”

— Rusty Ryan, Oceans 11

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in achieving simplicity is our own brain. The brain is designed and trained to handle complexity, so it can be easy for us to continue to add fidelity and unnecessary details to a given situation with the aim of painting a bigger picture. However, on the other side of that picture is another person trying to make sense of it so it’s important to clear the clutter and make room for the things that matter.

From a design standpoint, white space and brevity are key to simplicity. The more complex your product or idea is at the core, the simpler the surroundings should be. Fighting the urge to add another headline, more color, more dimension, or to fit content “above the fold” will help the brain focus on the essential information.

Think of an art gallery — blank walls, clean floors, minimal furnishings. The focus is on the artwork.

In conclusion

So how do I explain the television situation to my parents?

Slowly, one step at a time, and in clear terms with little embellishment.