Simplicity Over-Rated?

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Not to rag on Mike Torres of the MSN team or anything – not only is he generally pretty open minded with respect to competitive technologies, he is apparently very accomplished in the martial arts πŸ˜‰ – but I found the combination of his post and some of the comments on it too ironic to pass up. Here’s what he had to say in reaction to Google Talk:

The one common element that has caught my eye in the reviews of Google Talk has been around “simplicity”. It doesn’t have tabs, emoticons, backgrounds, nudges, video chat, or winks. And to many, that means a more focused, streamlined application. I can’t say I disagree with this in theory. But in application, it just doesn’t hold water for me. Existing IM applications are actually pretty malleable… and if Google wants to do more than the equivalent of the talk command on Unix, they will eventually struggle with managing clutter the same as others have over the last decade.

To be clear, you can turn off tabs in MSN Messenger (the first thing I do). You can get rid of the conversation toolbar, display pictures, and formatting bar. You can switch to small icons in the main window. You can turn off alerts & sounds. You can turn off background sharing and nudges. You can turn off emoticons, voice clips, winks and even hyperlinks in the main window. You can resize all windows to make them smaller and even get rid of the Win32 toolbars completely.

In about 15 seconds flat you can make the application as “simple” as you want it to be. Now, you could argue that all of this stuff should be turned off by default. And for some, that may be how they want their software to work. But ask any 12 year old if they want to have to turn on emoticons and backgrounds and see what they have to say πŸ˜‰ Trying to be perfect for all people is impossible. There are tradeoffs with either approach… but personally, I at least want the option to make up my own mind.

I discussed this in Simplicity and “It just works” a couple months back where I said “I would argue (and I do quite often) that simplicity in the long run is over-rated for most users, especially for users who actually know what they are doing. Keep it simple while they learn what they need to do but then empower them by adjusting the software to adapt to meet their unique needs.”

His argument, to me, can be distilled into the following:

  1. Simplicity in and of itself is a good thing
  2. Simplicity, however, often comes at the expense of functionality
  3. Over the longer term, simplicity at the expense of functionality is “over-rated” for most users

Or at least, that’s how I read it. I personally don’t subscribe to this view, because having spent a lot of time with regular users I’m convinced that of the extra features you might provide, the vast majority will go unused. Torres’ viewpoint – seemingly predicated on a belief that more users are power users than not – has been, I would argue, a characteristic of Microsoft development for a long time. While I might not pick simple platforms for my own use, however, I would for most of the people I know. Simplicity in fact is a major reason that I chose Bloglines and Blogger as the basis for these HowTo’s ; it certainly wasn’t because they were the most functional platforms available.

Neither do I believe that simplicity vs functionality is necessarily a mutually exclusive proposition; I tend to believe that the Firefox/extensions model is the best of both worlds, where the base product is simple, but advanced users can extend the functionality to suit their individual needs with plugins and addons without compromising the overall simplicity. But certainly the point can be debated, and often is – see any of the arguments between GTK/GNOME and QT/KDE. But given my disconnect with Mike’s argument, I couldn’t help but smile when I read the following comments on his post:

  • Because of my poor English,it’s a little difficult for me to understand your meanings,i still don’t know how to make my MSN look better πŸ™ – lei
  • Hey Mike, how did you turn off tabs in MSN Messenger? Did you twiddle with the reg keys? I can’t seem to find it in the options… Thanks πŸ˜‰ – Mark Jen
  • Like Mark Jen, I went “huh?” when I read your comment about turning off the tabs. The logical place to have this is in the Tabs settings, surely? Not buried away elsewhere. At least Messenger isn’t as bad (yet) as the Outlook client’s option settings, which remind me of “a maze of twisty little passages”. – GeoffC1

Still think simplicity’s over-rated? πŸ˜‰


  1. Re the comments on his blog: pwn’d

  2. Mike: thanks for the response. on the question of design, i agree the tug of war between features and clutter is always going to be a struggle. i think the truth is probably somewhere in between us. while i'd probably be a bit surprised how much people use emoticons and backgrounds, so might you be surprised at how little people use some of the provided functions.

    personally i like to be able to trick out my applications and customize to have the functionality and look and feel that i want, but over the years i've become more convinced that i'm not typical in that respect. lots of people have better things to worry about than that sort of thing, and are happy – ecstatic even – with something that just works.

    but at any rate, we'll just have to see how the major providers in this area achieve their own balance. should be interesting.

  3. For what it’s worth, I really like the extensions model as well. I wish more MS products employed this. I just posted the other day about how I extended Windows Media Player for fun… and you probably know about Spaces PowerToys. I’ve also posted about my Outlook macros for GTD and about how they are the reason I wasn’t a Mac switcher three years ago.

    In the case of Messenger, you would be surprised by how many people use emoticons and backgrounds. To some people it’s clutter, to others it’s essential to the software. Google Talk can’t really compete if it doesn’t add them.

    Note that I am not saying Messenger is the paragon of design. Not by a long shot. Just that the features it has are there for a reason: millions of people have asked for them over the years.

  4. “so might you be surprised at how little people use some of the provided functions.”

    I actually have the usage data for MSN Messenger – I’m not πŸ˜‰

    I *totally* agree that ease of use (and to some, simplicity) is *incredibly* important. We aren’t disagreeing really…

    BTW when I subscribed to your blog, *7* feeds were shown in Bloglines. That is pretty complex!

  5. “I actually have the usage data for MSN Messenger – I’m not ;)”

    hahaha – strong point πŸ˜‰

    “BTW when I subscribed to your blog, *7* feeds were shown in Bloglines. That is pretty complex!”

    wow – i’d totally forgotten about some of the legacy feeds. need to strip them out – thx much for the reminder.

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