Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Does radically simple design always win?

Ajaz Ahmed’s premise is overly simple in his Guardian piece, where he argues that radically simple design always wins. Here are five simple reasons why his argument is suspect:

1. Counter examples show a cluttered aesthetic can prove popular when you make the lens ‘local’ enough (see anthropologist Daniel Miller’s meditations on Trinidadian preferences in ‘The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach’)

2. Other factors contribute to market-leading uptake, perhaps decisively so. Take Google, one of Ajaz’s own examples. To suggest that its uncluttered visual design was the main factor downplays its investment in technology and engineering talent to generate the most relevant search results, along with a few early deals that increased traffic massively e.g. with AOL. Further, was Myspace really decisively undone by Facebook's simpler design as he argues? Or was it a heap of contingencies including network effects?

3. Are some of his paragons of simple design that really simple? Facebook for example has inflicted poorly thought-through privacy-impinging design decisions on its user (see anthropologist danah boyd’s piece ‘Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck’).

4. Simplicity isn’t always a virtue. Many people believe that TED’s simplicity/accessibility is actually problematic, from its soundbite format which doesn't really enlighten to its guiding belief that technology is an uncomplicated magic wand that will solve humanity's problems (i.e. let's forget the messy business of really understanding a problem and just parachute in more laptops per child). For more on such issues check out this brutal TED takedown from a former speaker.

5. Some of his paragons of simple design might create losers of users. As an open project Wikipedia might be accessible to many people (with an internet connection) and in theory any of these people can get involved as an editor but it presents a skewed view of the world, meaning there is room for improvement. Some facts: 1% of its editors contribute half of all Wikipedia edits. Only 13% of editors are women. Most editors are from the developed world. PR agency Bell Pottinger policed and amend entries on behalf of rich and powerful clients (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16084861). Here are more reasons why the reflection of traditional structures in open projects might cause issues - see the first video.

Arguably, Ajaz is absolved from the responsibility of making society a better place because his goal is to foster the effective design and navigation of commercially winning websites. But attending to the broader societal context and what 'winning' might also entail, we see that there is more to design than appealing visuals and functionality and that the issue of simplicity becomes, well, complex.