Monday, June 4, 2007

Expensive Things Must Look Advanced



I once (in the late 90ies) helped a Swedish insurance company to design the UI of a workflow application for managing insurance cases. The application was integrating and adding workflow functionality to a number of legacy systems that had text based UI:s. The users were required to toggle between them when performing a task and the workflow routing was completely manual.

After having demonstrated a prototype of the new UI for the steering committee by walking through an entire workflow scenario in only a few minutes, I got the evil eye from the project sponsor who irritated asked me “Is that all?!” “Eh…yes, that’s all” I said, wondering what I had said or done wrong.

I was surprised at his reaction since all of the users who I had involved in the design process had been very happy with the results. It clearly simplified their daily work, not the least it reduced the cognitive load of having to remember information when toggling between applications. It also significantly reduced the time to complete an entire workflow, which was exactly what I demonstrated for the steering committee and project sponsor. But the project sponsor expected to see some evidence of where his money had gone, which I obviously had failed to show him.

I can understand how he was thinking – if you pay a lot for something, then you generally expect it to be advanced (meaning complex), especially when it comes to technology. If it looks really simple, then you are likely to feel ripped off. Where did your money go? To social activities of expensive consultants?

This way of thinking is also the reason why many CIO/CTO:s get dazzled when software vendors are showcasing their advanced (complex) new products or showing PowerPoint presentations about them that are stuffed with 3D boxes, arrows and abbreviations. As a software vendor, you simply cannot sell the latest version of your product to anyone by telling them it has been greatly simplified and that you even removed some of the old features so that it gets more efficient to work with. No, efficiency in the IT industry has since long (since ever?) been synonymous with adding new and more advanced (complex) features. If a vendor would actually simplify a product, then they would instead have to point to all the new and advanced under-the-hood technologies that have been named with mysterious three-letter abbreviations.

I know this by now - simplicity does not sell. Of course, most users like simple and easy to use applications once they start using them. But before they start using it, someone probably has to pay a lot for it. And it needs to be advanced (complex) if that someone is going to buy it. It is as simple as that.

2 comments:

  1. I wrote a short essay on this very topic.

    In practice, people appreciate simple elegant solutions. However, in a working relationship people value complex design.

    Why does this paradox exist? I have a number of ideas on this...here's one:

    Hindsight bias. When you first start trying to solve a problem, the direction you should go is hard to determine. If a problem has been solved in a simple, elegant way, the solution begins to look obvious; it's so clear, that everyone immediately forgets how tangled and complex the initial problem space was to define and attack.

    Against all logic, they reach the mind-boggling conclusion that no work was done.

    In "Turn Signals", Don Norman describes the purposeful complicating of academic writing thusly:

    "If the writing is easy to understand, then the ideas beneath them must be inferior: simple writing reflects a simple mind."

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  2. Very interesting. Don Normans "Design of Everyday Things" once changed how I looked at IT. Some people are afraid of letting others into their territory, so they make things more complex than they need to be. This is common in the academic world, but sadly also in the IT industry.

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