Apple’s Complex Path to Simplicity

In an interview in the 2009 documentary Objectified by Gary Hustwit, Apple's Jony Ive spends several minutes explaining the amount of work his team puts into reducing the part count on each generation of Mac. Through a complex series of machining steps, they had been able to replace dozens of separate parts with physical features that are built into a laptop's aluminum chassis, which contributes greatly to its sense of solidity and simplicity. The result feels simple, but the process that produced it is incredibly complex.

Similarly, eliminating the CD-ROM drive was something that initially earned Apple tremendous criticism when they released the first MacBook Air. This elimination allowed them to create a streamlined, lightweight computer, which has since achieved success in the market—but it was only possible because of the massive, years-long efforts that Apple and other companies had put into streaming media, faster web connections, and cloud storage. because of the massive, years-long efforts that Apple and other companies had put into streaming media, faster web connections, and cloud storage.

Dieter Rams famously said that “good design is as little design as possible” many decades ago, and designers have been quoting him ever since . So if we all know it and agree with it, why are we often so reluctant to actually deliver on simplicity?

In part, it’s because of speed . It’s often faster to build a feature-laden product than a streamlined one, because adding something new without evaluating what’s already there is a fairly straightforward process Complexity is also a management issue . We often empower managers and directors to add features, but very few people have the authority to take them away

In the digital world, complexity also arises out of conflict between legacy systems and newer technologies . We may try to use a new programming language that everyone’s talking about, but we don’t take into account that it, too, will be legacy one day, and that the designers who work on the next iteration will be reluctant to deal with the “old” code, just as we are today.

Every product starts out complicated . Life is complex, reality is complex, and you’re no longer designing for a desktop sitting in a simplified, isolated bubble . When your product is competing with many others in an unpredictable environment, you must design for a complex system . This means abstracting the insights gained from your research and the concepts developed in your design process so that the user is left with the simplest possible product that can be used This doesn’t mean doing the user’s tasks for them . It means empowering the user to get to their goal with the least amount of attention .

What problem does your system solve? For each new feature, ask yourself, is this something necessary to the product? Not fun, but necessary. If it doesn’t solve a core problem, don’t build it. Even if managers and stakeholders get in the way, you can always have them answer these core questions.

The technology in our homes offers a good example . Home technology systems include many components—lights and switches, outlets, breakers, major appliances, heating and cooling systems, etc.—and they all work pretty well . Everyone basically knows how to use all of the components (even the more exotic ones, like dimmers and fan controls), and can adjust them to their needs . This is largely because interfaces are fairly obvious, and provide direct feedback on the outcome,

whether it’s a light coming on or a kettle getting hot . It’s also because the systems are extremely standardized: practically any homeowner can quickly figure out any house .

There’s much more behind the scenes . Home wiring diagrams can become very complicated, very quickly, which is one of the reasons electricians have to go through long periods of training, apprenticeship, and accreditation before they’re allowed to work on your home That complexity, though, is designed to ensure safety and reliability, and to minimize additional interaction demands on the user

But suppose you want to control your lights using a remote control, or your phone . Perhaps you find an exciting new system on Kickstarter that you want to fund, or maybe you buy some Hue lights and install them Then suppose you want to get into your home by pressing a few buttons rather than using a key, and you install SmartThings so you can trigger your lights to turn on when you enter a room

Suddenly, you have a lot of new complexity, and it’s not just behind the scenes . Your various software systems don’t always work well together, because they don’t adhere to a consistent set of standards . You forget to update the system . You leave town for a couple of weeks and the entry system’s batteries run flat so you can’t get into your own house . Or you set up the systems a year ago in a fervor of excitement and have forgotten which parts go where, so you end up living in a home that is slowly breaking down on you Or you break up with your partner and they move out of your house, but still have access to all of the shared home tech accounts; suddenly your ex knows when you enter and leave your home, and gets push notifications every time you weigh yourself on your connected scale

Both of the systems described here are complex, but the second one isn’t standardized, nor is it optimized for calm interactivity It does offer more functionality, but only by shifting most of the interaction demand to the user

There is a tendency in the tech world for technical capability to race ahead of reliability. We do not install electrical systems with the expectation that the homeowner can fix every system in the house, or rewire it if something breaks down, and that influences how we install them in the first place . It’s not just a matter of using the least amount of tech possible, but of building that tech in such a way that the complexity is, to some degree, self-policing—that’s why home electrical systems have ground wires, waterproof outdoor outlets, and dimmers placed next to the relevant switches

You shouldn’t have to be a system administrator to live in your own home . And you shouldn’t have to have a system administrator either. I am not condemning the home automation hobbyist here, but in order for home automation to become widespread, it needs to be as reliable as electricity A current automated home remote control system can take up to four steps to turn on the lights: for most of us, a light switch is better. The Hue customizable lighting system now offers HueTap, a wireless light switch that mounts to your wall or is set on your desk Crucially, it’s powered by the kinetic energy of pressing the buttons, so it doesn’t require batteries .

Such small positive steps illuminate a guiding principle of Calm Technology: don’t introduce new dependencies unless there’s no other way. Instead of a remote control or dedicated app, why not text your house? Every phone already has a text message system, but not all phones can run every kind of app . If a technology relies on the newest mobile technology, it may break with the next software upgrade But if it works via text message or a physical button, it has a longer interaction lifetime, and a shorter learning curve

In general, when you design technology, consider the lifetime of the interaction models you use with it, and introduce a new mode of interaction only as a last resort . 95% of the time, there’s already an existing level of interaction that the user is familiar with and that satisfies your interaction needs Put your design efforts into making that work right, not always into creating a new gadget that can crash

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