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The Laws of Simplicity [Book Summary]

One of the best principles to apply throughout a company is the KISS principle. Yet what is simplicity? This short book by John Maeda answers that question.

THE LAWS OF SIMPLICITY, by John Maeda

There are 10 laws of simplicity.  They fall into three flavours (three increasingly complicated conditions of simplicity):

  • Basic simplicity - reduce, organise, time

  • Intermediate simplicity - learn, differences, context

  • Deep simplicity - emotion, trust, failure

The 10th law sums up the entire set.

Ten laws of simplicity

LAW #1 - REDUCE - The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality.  When in doubt, just remove.  But be careful of what you remove.

Use the SHE principle - Shrink, Hide, Embody.

  • SHRINK - When a small, unassuming object exceeds our expectations, we are not only surprised but pleased.  The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it misbehaves.  Shrinking a product lowers expectations.  Make the product slim, light, and thin.  E.g. iPod.

  • HIDE - Hide the complexity.  For example, the Swiss Army Knife - only the tool you wish to use is exposed, and the clamshell design of mobile phones.  Functionality is hidden until you really need it.

  • EMBODY - Embody quality.  The quality can be actual (such as better materials and craftsmanship, e.g. iPod) or perceived (such as a thoughtful marketing campaign, e.g. when we see Michael Jordan wearing Nikes).

LAW #2 - ORGANISE - Organisation makes a system of many appear fewer.

Organise your clutter of objects/concepts/functions to make them simpler and more manageable.

Achieve integration across disparate elements.  Use the SLIP principle - Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritise.

  • SORT - Find the natural groupings.  Organise your thousand-piece wardrobe into six categories.

  • LABEL - Each group deserves a relevant name.

  • INTEGRATE - Integrate (merge) groups that appear significantly like each other.  The fewer the groups the better.

  • PRIORITISE - Collect the highest priority items into a single set to ensure that they get the most attention.

A good way to display the information visually is to use TABLES.  The tabular form of viewing data is a rare sort of visual magic that always works.

LAW #3 - TIME - Savings in time feel like simplicity.

When forced to wait, life seems unnecessarily complex.  Savings in time feel like simplicity.  And we are thankfully loyal when it happens.  Think of overnight delivery services like FedEx and ordering burgers at McDonald's.

Savings in time is really about reducing time, hence we can use the SHE principle:

  • SHRINK time - Reduce a five-minute task to a one-minute task.  Give up the option of choice and let a machine choose for you. E.g. Google's "I'm feeling lucky" search option.

  • HIDE time - Make things happen in the background.

  • EMBODY time - Never give the impression that the computer has frozen - display a progress bar.  Think of crosswalk signals that have their own numerical countdown, and of waiting on hold for a service representative with an automated voice telling you how many minutes you have left to hold until you speak to a human.

LAW #4 - LEARN - Knowledge makes everything simpler.

Operating a screw is deceptively simple.  Just mate the grooves atop the screw's head.  But what happens next is not as simple: do you turn left or right?  You need a mnemonic such as "righty tighty, lefty loosy".  Knowledge makes everything simpler.

Use the BRAIN principle:

  • Basics are the beginning.  Assume the position of the first-time learner.

  • Repeat yourself often.  Repetition works.

  • Avoid creating desperation.  The overwhelming new bells and whistles of an amazing new product can create anxiety.

  • Inspire with examples.  Internal motivation trumps external reward.

  • Never forget to repeat yourself.

The user needs to feel safe (by avoiding desperation), feel confident (by mastering the basics) and feel instinctive (by having been conditions through repetition).

LAW #5 - DIFFERENCES - Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Simplicity and complexity need each other.  The more complexity there is in the market, the more something simpler stands out.  Like the simplicity of the iPod in comparison to its more complex competitors in the MP3 market.

Hear the beat of simplicity and complexity clearly in everything that you experience.

LAW #6 - CONTEXT - What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

That which appears to be of immediate relevance may not be nearly as important compared to everything else around.  Complexity implies the feeling of being lost; simplicity implies the feeling of being found.

  • Create white space.

  • A simple progress bar can tell you exactly how far you've gotten.

  • Page numbers and other traditional navigational elements like chapter headings are another layer of information that helps prevent you from getting lost.

LAW #7 - EMOTION - More emotions are better than less.

Simplicity, as in neutral colours and minimalist form, can be considered ugly.  Your product needs a sense of human warmth.

Remember the Tamagocchi craze of the late 1990s - everyone was falling in love with a small electronic keychain unit that yearned for human attention.

LAW #8 - TRUST - In Simplicity we trust.

It is easy to forget that the entire details of your e-social life can be exposed to a company, or potentially a government, outside of your control (e.g. facebook).  The question is how comfortable you are about the computer knowing how you think, and how tolerant you will be if (and when) the computer makes a mistake in guessing your desires.  The more a system knows about you, the less you have to think.  But is the risk of placing trust in the devices around you worth the simplicity gained?  Privacy is sacrificed for extra convenience.

One feature relating to trust is the UNDO button - the ability to undo an action in a computer tool, or the ability to return goods to the store for a refund.

LAW #9 - FAILURE - Some things can never be made simple.

There are certain things that I would never want to become simple - that includes my close relationships and my collection of art.

LAW #10 - Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.  This law sums up all the others.

Three keys

There are three specific technologies that have particular relevance to the subject of simplicity:

  • 1st Key: AWAY - More appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.  E.g. "software as a service", like Google Docs.  You don't need to install or host software yourself.

  • 2nd Key: OPEN - Openness simplifies complexity.  E.g. open-source systems, or providing an API to your system.

  • 3rd Key: POWER - Use less, gain more.  E.g. low-power devices that can go a long time without recharging.