• anna singer

A few words on complexity


I’ve just read a great book called ‘Living with Complexity’ by Donald A. Norman. You should read it. It rocks! Here’s the TLDR if you don’t have the time:

“If only today’s technology were simpler! It’s the universal lament, but it’s wrong. Don Norman writes that the complexity of our technology must mirror the complexity and richness of our lives. It’s not complexity that’s the problem, it’s bad design. Good design can tame complexity.”

That’s what the dust jacket says. And here are a few takeaway points from me:

Simplicity is a mental state, highly coupled with understanding. Something is perceived as simple when its actions, options, and appearance match the person’s conceptual model. That’s right: something is only complicated if you have trouble understanding it.


Complexity is necessary. Complexity is what we require of our technology today. Complexity is an opportunity that can be embraced when users and designers find harmony. A great Experience Designer can increase the perceived simplicity of a product. It’s all in your head!


People might very well desire more capability and more ease of use, but we should not equate those with more features and more simplicity. What people want are usable devices, which translates into understandable ones. The whole point of human-centered design is to tame complexity, to turn what would appear to be a complicated tool into one that fits the task, one that is understandable, usable, enjoyable. Absolutely! We require our mobile phones to be complex – if your iPhone could only make and receive calls that would be no good. And even then, you’d want to know who was calling you, or who you were calling, so then an address book is required. What if you miss a call? A voicemail service is required. And then when we think about text messages, we want autocorrect, auto suggest, auto complete. Do we want to know if the message has been delivered, if it has been read? And that’s just phone calls and text messages. Then we require a high quality camera, internet access, apps, maps etc etc. It’s all pretty complex stuff, but you wouldn’t say your iPhone is difficult to use. It’s a breeze.


And that’s where great Experience Design comes in!

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My folks are the ultimate UX practitioners. They made parenting look so darned simple (which, for the record, it's really not).

Behind my carefree upbringing was a complex structure that I couldn't see; a constantly evolving architecture of morality, ethics, education and boundaries. My folks had some pretty stern error messages too, but, I'll not lie, they were necessary. Their project is ongoing, but requires fewer updates these days.

I'm a London based practitioner bringing UX into real life, and real life into UX.