Complexity on the brain


Sometimes the complexity hits you right in the face…the user interface.

Farhad Manjoo documents the latest chapter in the seething complexity of our everyday world in his piece “2011 Was a Terrible Year for Tech”…

  • “Over the last few years, the industry finally started paying attention to normals: With the advent of smartphones, tablets, and centralized app and media stores, it looked like computers would finally become easy enough for every tech reviewer’s mom to use. But then, this year, all that simplicity was tossed out the window. It was a terrible year for tech. In 2011 nearly every gadget or service that I use on a regular basis picked up new features that made it more frustrating to deal with. Everywhere I looked, I saw feature creep, platform wars, competing media standards, and increasingly chaotic user interfaces. Complexity appeared in places where I’ve come to expect it—like Facebook, which, as usual, added a blizzard of overlapping, sometimes secret features—but also in longtime havens for normals, like the Mac operating system. In Lion, Apple’s latest OS, there are so many ways to download and launch apps—not to mention a new, full-screen app interface that renders everything you thought you knew about how to get around your Mac pretty much useless, and introduces a host of inconsistent swipe gestures—that even if you dare to install it, you’d be wise to ignore everything new. But it’s not just that individual products got more difficult to use; in 2011 the entire tech ecosystem descended toward entropy. Devices and services had a harder time playing together, and simply choosing what to use became an occasion for a flowchart.”

Sometime the product is not what it seems to be. It’s not a running shoe; it’s a confidence booster. It’s not life insurance; it’s a peace of mind. It’s not a piece of fashion; it’s membership in a tribe. Perhaps the new ‘commodity’ in both short supply and high demand is’ simplicity’. And perhaps that has been the secret to the rise of Apple (though they get their share of drubbing by Manjoo). They have not been selling music players, smartphones or tablets. Such devices have been around for the years. They have been selling ‘simplicity’. And the market for simplicity in a complex world is huge and growing strong.

In my career at Microsoft, it was clear that the company was an organisation of engineers making stuff for engineers. Not just engineers by trade (though that was a major target segment….’Developers, Developers, Developers’). But stuff for the engineer in all of us. In short they made tools. Useful stuff. The picks and shovels for the Information Age gold rush. In the pioneering days, any shovel that worked would do. Even then, the world was not that complicated. And Microsoft focused on making it work.

Today, getting stuff to work is no longer trailblazing. The spot price for ‘utility’ is slowly declining, while bid prices for the commodity prices of ‘simplicity’ are surging. According to laws of supply and demand, in a complex world, ‘simplicity’ gets rarer and rarer like a depleted mine or well.

Embracing the failure of comprehensibility in the everyday world means investing and innovating in new breakthroughs of simplicity and transparency.