This post was originally made on our old blog in 2011 and has been reposted here.

In an ever more complex and diverse software landscape simplicity is becoming an increasingly desirable property for software to possess. Yet it remains as rare and elusive as ever. So what is simplicity and why is it important?

Einstein liked simplicity and famously said:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

einstein writing on a blackboard

Einstein liked simplicity a lot

According to the entry on Wikipedia:

Simplicity is the property of being simple. It usually relates to the burden which a thing puts on someone trying to explain or understand it. Something which is easy to understand or explain is simple, in contrast to something complicated. In some uses, simplicity can be used to imply beauty, purity or clarity. Simplicity may also be used in a negative connotation to denote a deficit or insufficiency of nuance or complexity of a thing, relative to what is supposed to be required.

So if a design takes too long to explain or is difficult to understand it is not simple. That would tally perfectly with what we know to be true of simple and complex interfaces and how users react to them.

Here’s what Google have to say on the subject of simplicity:

Simplicity is powerful. Simplicity fuels many elements of good design, including ease of use, speed, visual appeal, and accessibility. But simplicity starts with the design of a product‘s fundamental functions. Google doesn‘t set out to create feature-rich products; our best designs include only the features that people need to accomplish their goals. Ideally, even products that require large feature sets and complex visual designs appear to be simple as well as powerful. Google teams think twice before sacrificing simplicity in pursuit of a less important feature. Our hope is to evolve products in new directions instead of just adding more features.

We believe that the star of the show is the great interfaces that you create, not ours. Our philosophy is that the Fluid UI interface should try and stay out of the way - the menus should be, ideally non-existent or where absolutely required, as unobtrusive and simple as possible, yet at the same time, be accessible exactly when needed. This is, of course, a tricky balancing act and we are sure our solution is not perfect. We will monitor user reactions to this approach and refine our UI based on feedback.

Simple is damn hard to do

windows bad user interface in word

Microsoft clean and simple?

As we see it, to achieve UI simplicity all non-essential elements, needed to achieve the core task at hand, must be reconsidered and if possible removed completely or simplified to their core elements. It would be a lot easier to just squash all the functionality into little icons in a toolbar on a “static interface” and move on.

We prefer to keep as much of the screen free as possible at all times. On the other hand, simplify things too much and functionality is missing or hidden and therefore hard to find and so the benefits that simplicity should bring are lost - simplicity is complicated and indeed very hard to implement - but we believe in the approach, and hope it will distinguish Fluid UI from some of our competitors - we feel the extra effort is worth it.Another inspiration for the approach we took to the design of Fluid UI, and our approach to design in general, is the work of George Whitesides. He expresses his own ideas so eloquently in this TED talk

George Whitesides: Towards a science of simplicity

Let us know your thoughts on simplicity - do you agree or not? Should interfaces be as simple as possible or have all functionality on show all of the time? As always, we love to hear from you so please do leave your own comments below.

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