Simplistic vs. simple in product design

August 28, 2014 · Chris Peters

We've all heard of it before: "I want something simple." When you're building a product, this sentiment can sometimes lead you down the deceptive path of simplistic. There is an important difference between the terms.

Less isn’t more; just enough is more.

— Milton Glaser

We’ve all heard of it before: “I want something simple.” People get tired of products that present them with so many choices that they don’t know where to start or where to go next.

When you’re building a product, this sentiment can sometimes lead you down the deceptive path of simplistic. You are relieved to find out that you can do less to make your customers happy. (But deep down, you know that you’re opting for laziness.)

Unfortunately, this is probably going to end poorly for the part of you that wants to work 2-day weeks and take 20 vacations a year.

Consider the definition of simplistic, that easy path that you so desperately want to take:

  • Lazy
  • Rushed

treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are. “simplistic solutions”

synonyms: facile, superficial, oversimple, oversimplified; shallow, jejune,naive “the proposed solutions are too simplistic”

“Lazy.” “Superficial.” “Rushed.” Ouch.

If you want to be doing work that means something (and if you’re reading this, you probably do), then you need to be mindful of unpacking what your customer means when she uses the word simple.

For contrast, the definition of simple:

easily understood or done; presenting no difficulty.

“a simple solution” synonyms: straightforward, easy, uncomplicated, uninvolved, effortless, painless, undemanding, elementary, child’s play; informal, as easy as pie, as easy as ABC, a piece of cake, a cinch, no sweat, a pushover, kids’ stuff, a breeze, duck soup, a snap “it’s really simple”

synonyms: clear, plain, straightforward, intelligible, comprehensible, uncomplicated, accessible; informal, user-friendly “simple language”

“Painless.” “A cinch.” “No sweat.” “Clear.” “Uncomplicated.” Does that sound more like what you want to be doing? If you really want to be making a difference, this is where you need to be.

This example by Eric Burke demonstrates the difference between simplistic and simplicity in user interface design perfectly:

Typical Apple product: a single touch button. Typical Google product: a single search bar. Your company's app: a mess of form fields and buttons.

Giving your user every option possible all at the same volume, you’ve taken the easy way out. Easy for the product designer to build and hard for the user.

A good Apple or Google product provides you with a simple interface that hides complexity beautifully. When you touch that button or fill in that text field, the product does a ton of work behind the scenes to give you what you want or need. Hard for the product designer to build and easy for the user.

Let’s continue to strive for simplicity and let all of the lazy, simplistic products out there die in the flames of indifference.

About Chris Peters

With over 20 years of experience, I help plan, execute, and optimize digital experiences.

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