The Seduction of Simple: Hidden Complexity
Simple often isn’t. Spacious interfaces with few controls, artfully placed, may look comforting and inviting (and they often are), but they can also front for a mafia underground of hidden interaction complexity.
I recently heard a respected designer (who shall remain nameless) speaking of what he called an exemplar of simplicity in interface design: the garage door opener. That’s the seduction of simple in action, because it isn’t simple at all. We all make numerous errors using the garage door opener — moving the door in the wrong direction first, pausing the door accidentally, or hitting the button too many times after the door doesn’t respond quickly enough. It’s actually a resoundingly bad interface masquerading behind the innocence face of a single, simple button.
Why’s it so bad? Because the single button is a grunt-and-click interface that tries to hide a more complex set of variables: the door’s velocity and position. The door has six states: Closed, opened, closing, opening, and two types of paused (I’ll come back to this). The button has only one action to control all of these. To know what pressing the button will do, you have to keep track of the state of the system:
When your mental model doesn’t match the actual state of the system, a mode error occurs.
Mode errors will occur frequently in particular because of the two types of pauses: In one the door goes up when you press the button, and the other it goes down. There’s no way to know which state the system is in without remembering what’s come before. We know that this will confuse and befuddle users.
The seduction of simple is an easy trap to fall into as a designer: it gives the appearance of ease-of-use without delivering on the promise. It’s a crutch we can’t allow ourselves. Me most exorcise the devil of false simplicity from our interfaces.
Question: What’s a better garage-door opener interface?