The Power of Simplicity
I am fully on board with Apple and in particular, Jony Ive, with their argument for simplicity in design. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. It’s very easy to make something complicated, but it’s actually quite hard to take something that would initially seem complex and make it simple.
One might argue that designing a plain text app for taking notes would have a simple UI, but is not hard to design or develop. But there’s a big difference between designing something with simplicity and designing something out of laziness. Something with excellent design and functionality that is also simple and easy to use is very rarely the result of laziness. It takes numerous iterations. “A thousand no’s for every yes,” as Apple puts it.
My friend is starting a band. Him and his band mates are trying to come up with a name. They’ve gone through well over 50 without exaggeration. He threw an idea at me last night that he didn’t like very much and I love it: Square One. I love it because the name is gloriously simple, yet it has an unbelievable amount of unlocked potential and meanings. Square One could mean that the band is just starting out, which right now is valid. In the future, it could have nostalgic meaning about how their success all started from square one. Square one could be referring to the music they write and create together — how such a complex and beautiful masterpiece could start from square one; how it all stemmed from there. Plus, think about band logos. It could very obviously be a square with a 1 in it, which would be easy to design and easy to market because the band name is immediately clear from looking at the logo. Or you could opt for something more abstract that still gets the message across, like the word ONE written at a square 1:1 ratio in a blocky font. The possibilities are endless because it’s such a simple name that holds such powerful meaning.
For this example and in many others, simplicity is wonderful because it lets the mind freely wander. You can get creative or imaginative much more with something that is simple than if complex. In fact, complexity is often (albeit not always) restrictive. If you read a book and the ending is described with precision detail, you have one ending and one vision in your head. If you read another book and the ending has just enough detail to make it sensible without imposing too much detail on you, every person reading that book will have a different image in their head. Some endings are so vague that each person has an entirely different ending of their own. The simplicity here unlocks freedom for the reader.
I promise there’s a reason why I’m suddenly talking about simplicity vs. complexity. It’s because of the Instagram announcement today that the app has added support for video. The reason we all assume is to crush Vine, a competitor that allows for 6-second video clips. Instagram allows for 15 seconds, plus you can add filters, plus you can choose a cover photo. Who is ultimately going to win? Instagram, because it already has plenty of users who are using the app for sharing photos. Now they can share photos and videos all in one place. But who has the better experience? That’s arguable, but I think Vine does.
In Vine, the process of recording and sharing a video works like this. Step 1: Tap the video button. Step 2: Record your video. Step 3: Share the video. The entire process is complete within three steps. Now let’s look at Instagram's process. Step 1: Tap the camera button. Step 2: Switch to video mode. Step 3: Record the video. Step 4: Add filters. Step 5: Choose the cover photo. Step 6: Share the video. Instagram adds three more steps than Vine does for sharing photos. That’s three more steps taking up your time. Simplicity reigns here because it proves to be a crucial factor in speed. It eliminates all the unnecessary bullshit too, i.e. are people really that interested in choosing a cover photo?
Additionally, Instagram now has two focuses while Vine has one. If you wanted to browse your friends’ video clips, you knew to go to Vine. You’d see an endless stream of video clips and nothing more. In Instagram, you’ll see a mix of photos and videos. Many people prefer this because they can see both types of content all in one place now rather than checking two sources. Convenience is a solid point. However, scrolling through your Instagram feed and seeing a video every so often is a bit of a jarring experience. All of a sudden in a sea of still photos, something is moving. And if you had your sound off, you have to turn it on just for this one clip and a few others that may or may not pop up in your feed. At least before you knew what you were getting into when you opened the apps separately. On Instagram you’d see photos and on Vine you’d see videos. Period.
In Apple’s brilliant “Designed by Apple - Intention” video, it asks the question, “If everyone is busy making everything, how can anyone perfect anything?” It’s a rhetorical question of course because the answer is it’d be nearly impossible to perfect anything. Apple takes the simple approach with product lines. There’s the Mac, iPhone, iPod, and iPad. Those are the main product lines, just four. By staying simple, Apple is able to maintain laser focus on perfecting the products they make. Apple could have 20 product lines if they wanted to by just creating a bunch of other random stuff. But the focus would weaken, the people would get overworked, and the products would suffer as a result.
Instagram might have video now with an excellent set of editing tools, but the beauty of it simply being a photo app has been taken away. It can take only a minute or two to come up with a spontaneous band name with multiple words and plenty of syllables that would sound kick-ass and blend in snuggly with other mainstream bands, but it would have a narrow scope of meaning and interpretation and a larger chance of unwanted complexity or confusion.
When something is both simple and functional, you know its creator put a great deal of effort into making it that way. There is immense power and beauty in the sheer nature of simplicity. It just needs to be unlocked with time and care.