Picture a Swiss Army knife resplendent with multi-purpose, and I challenge you not to think of the word —prepared.
From the brutality of it’s form to the savagery of it’s function — you could go into the wilderness right now, it suggests, with no more than this small piece of plastic and steel, and survive. It’s a tool that proudly proclaims preparation for whatever life hurls at you… Unless, like me, you tote the Butler’s model — which prepares one for very little except an impromptu picnic in a meadow.
Yes, I’ve always viewed preparation as the promise that no pinot remains impenetrable when I need to slake a vicious thirst. I’ve certainly never fully appreciated the Swiss Army knife’s compact complexity until a recent four day splitboarding incursion into the New Zealand backcountry. Plastered to the top of a cliff by a blizzard, about to drop off what appeared to be the edge of the world, I discovered that my bindings had rattled themselves free from my board. After a solid hit of adrenalin and a lengthy self-flagellistic soliloquy for forgetting a screwdriver, anxiety turned to relief with the realisation I’d dropped a pocket knife into my pack to cleave our midday salami. This may well have been the first time I’d used this rugged implement for any purpose other than slicing cheese or smallgoods, and no words can adequately convey my feels as I coaxed that tiny screwdriver from its cozy plastic burrow to tighten the screws.
In that moment, I finally appreciated my Swiss Army knife for what it actually is — a ridiculous 87 tools with 141 unique functions somehow squeezed into a rectangle small enough to slip snug into a pocket. Tiny enough to not think twice about taking; enough functions to make it worth taking. The very embodiment of preparation. Complex function hidden behind a simple interface through clever design.
From iPhones to navigating the Metro, from Google searches to our brains: we constantly underestimate the sheer complexity of things when they’re well designed. It’s easy to assume that everything that seems simple is simple — especially because the successful resolution of complexity renders itself invisible.
Dealing with complexity is a topic we’ve seen escalate in importance within organisations as business becomes increasingly intricate. A hefty chunk of the work we do is helping clever folk like you take complex ideas, messages, processes, policies and strategies, and developing them into more engaging experiences and communication. It’s a process that involves diving headlong and intrepid into complexity: a search for sense and simplicity — and that’s where things get interesting.
By definition: simplicity is the opposite of complexity, but let’s begin by harpooning the belief that it’s either one or the other. Nor should simplicity be seen as merely an exercise in subtraction. These notions are far too simplistic.
The world is complex. Humans are complex. Life is complex. Work is complex. We deal with inherent complexity daily. It’s naive to think we should — or can — solve complexity just by eliminating details. That isn’t simplicity — that’s just dumbing things down. Removing detail is robbing the richness that makes things interesting; stripping the features that makes things useful.
Heck, simplifying complexity isn’t even the real issue we should be solving.
No, our objective should be engagement and impact — making a difference. And the real challenge to making things engaging; enjoyable; influential; inspiring; impactful; informative; clear; isn’t actually complexity…
Fortunately, complexity doesn’t need to be confusing.
Complexity can certainly be engaging.
So — let’s make the complicated easy to understand. Make things understandable and they’ll seem simple. Make things seem simple, and we remove one of the biggest barriers to engagement.
How do we do it?
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
— Albert Einstein
Before we go further, let me pause and acknowledge a pesky elephant in my room at present…
WE’RE DOING A PIECE ON SIMPLICITY HERE, FRIENDS!
This probably seem obvious given you came here to read about the topic — but for me it’s just become a terrible realisation. Given my penchant for fruity prose and excessive adjectives, I’m dread-filled at the thought of producing a complicated piece about simplicity. And, if there’s one truth I’ve confirmed while writing this:
Simplicity ain’t easy.
No, the challenge is that effective simplicity isn’t a matter of hacking out the bits that’re hard to deal with — it's resolving them so that you don’t even notice they’re there.
A Google search shows a single input box while concealing algorithms that tear through 4.74 billion pages to find and filter results in less time than it takes to blink. Within the tiny form and plain exterior of an iPhone — the ability to connect with the world. Cameras capture a moment in time with the click of a button. The theory of relativity — as elegant and memorable as E = mc2.
Closer to home: Ernest Hemingway’s writing is renown for it’s simplicity. Direct and unadorned; reserved in use of adjectives — the simplicity of language means that almost anyone can read and understand it, yet it hides complexity in the structure and narrative. Hemingway focuses on the effect his writing has on the reader, but what appears simple and effortless is actually built on an intricate system of repetition and symmetry. His prose may be stripped of superfluous, but it remains evocative because of what he chooses to include. Each word matters so much that changing even a single word could throw it all off key. It’s far from simple, but he does it all so well that we just don’t notice it.
We’re not Google, nor am I (sadly) Hemingway. But I do know a bit about engagement.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a product, a design, a piece of communication, a service, or an experience — the same fundamentals apply. Make things easy to understand, and they’ll seem simple. Make things simple, and they become far more engaging.
But enough of the theory, and into the practice. Below are 6 considerations for simplicity that we use in work, we hope you’ll find them useful in yours.
The beginning is always an excellent place to start, so let’s begin by asking ourselves why this thing we’re doing exists? Who’s it for? What purpose does it serve? What problem does it solve? Where will it be experienced? What are the expectations?
So many questions, but simplicity and comprehension are highly contextual. Simplicity in one circumstance is often complexity in another. Someone’s simplicity is somebody else’s complexity. Two physicists might have a thoroughly fascinating discussion about relativity, but you best come at me with Science For Dummies if you expect even a rudimentary conversation. This isn’t a notion reserved for rocket scientists and neurosurgeons though — there’s complexity in any specialisation. From making great coffee, to manufacturing staples, to ensuring the trains run on time — we should consider what simplicity means to our intended recipient or user.
Taking it back to the Swiss Army knife from our earlier tale — we see an excellent example of context. In everyday situations, each function is better achieved using an implement engineered specifically for that purpose: a regular screwdriver; a proper cheese knife; a decent corkscrew. Squeezing a toolbox into miniature means making compromises. In the intended context of adventure however, when weight, size and portability are the key considerations, these compromises are far outweighed by having all the functions at hand. The Swiss Army knife’s simplicity comes from understanding the context it will be used in, the ruthless exclusion of unnecessary, and inclusion of only the most relevant.
This segues us very satisfactorily into…
Once we understand the context, then we can sift for relevance. What do we include? What details really matter? What’s really important? What helps us solve the problem?
It’s easiest to start with subtraction. Let’s remove the unnecessary to let the important bits breathe. But — caution! Simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for minimalism. Where simplicity comes from understanding and resolving complexity, minimalism is merely a stylistic treatment. While effective simplicity is invisible, minimalism is often all too obvious — at a sure cost to comprehension.
Yes, a sure side effect of over-simplification is, quite perversely — confusion. Oh, the wonderful irony in that! Stripping things too far back and removing meaningful information can easily introduce confusion and cognitive load as we struggle to make sense. Something as seemingly insignificant as removing text from icons can make a user interface less intuitive and difficult to navigate. Minimalism in architecture looks beautiful… up until the moment someone inhabits it. Life is full of big, beautiful mess, detail and complexity. It’s certainly easier to remove it rather than address it, but that’s not what simplicity is about.
Quite counter-intuitively, simplicity can sometimes be better achieved through addition. Yes, in cheeky contradiction of our inclination to include less — more, is often… more. As well as asking what can be removed, let’s also ask what we can add. How might we introduce more richness, meaning, function, purpose and human-ness into our work?
The London Underground recently updated their tube maps, and contrary to a typical minimalist treatment, added extra detail. The redesign includes the number of steps between each station, revealing the times when it’s actually easier to walk than cram into a crowded compartment. It’s a solution that demonstrates an understanding of context and relevance to achieve simplicity, including the right level of complexity to create a better experience. What initially appears more complicated, ultimately makes peoples’ lives simpler.
This transitions us quite nicely into…
Whether it’s services, products, communication or experiences, we all seek to connect our work with other people. We wrote a lengthy, yet (we hope) rousing rally back in the earliest quarter of this year on making communication more engaging through 9 human fundamentals. Not surprisingly, many of the things that create engaging communication also promote better comprehension and understanding.
Yes, understanding what makes us tick, also helps us to make things simple. Purpose and empathy helps us establish context. Curiosity inspires learning and understanding. Engaging our senses helps us make sense of things. Emotions drive our choices at the most basic level. Storytelling establishes a deeper connection. Conversations help us improve future iterations.
And, when it comes to humans, here’s another truth…
Busy and overwhelmed have become our new normal. We’re bombarded by a constant clash and clamour for our attention. Choices, too. Recent research estimates that we make around 35,000 remotely conscious decisions a day, each one expending mental energy. Make enough choices in too short a time frame — our decision-making abilities dramatically decrease.
Hooray, free will.
Yessir, there’s only so much information we can process, and so many decisions we can make before our gears start grinding. Psychologists refer to the amount of mental effort used by our working memory as cognitive load. When the load becomes too weighty, it dramatically affects our ability to complete tasks. Two fellows named Hick and Hyman have a Law that finds with each additional choice, the time taken to make a decision increases. Obviously none of this is ideal if we’re trying to encourage people to do something, or get things done.
To manage cognitive load, psychologists recommend we reduce extraneous load, manage intrinsic load, and maximise germane load. All this is a quite complicated way of saying: understand the complexity involved, remove the barriers to understanding it, and make the learning methods effective. Make it easy; make it simple — folk will be more likely to act.
Decision fatigue probably goes a long way to explaining why I’m mentally drained by the time I’ve decided which shade of black t-shirt to wear each morning. Steve Jobs was well-known for deliberate sartorial monotony — suiting up in a self-imposed uniform of turtleneck, jeans and sneakers every day to shave a few choices. Obama, Zuckerberg and Einstein are other champions of donning the same duds daily — saving cerebral stamina for decidedly more important issues. We don’t all need to start stocking wardrobes with a weeks’ worth of turtlenecks, but we can do our bit to lighten the cognitive load for others.
We can begin by limiting the choices. This doesn’t necessarily mean removing all the options, but we can divide and deliver them in more manageable blocks. This is one of the reasons filters are frequently used in online shopping, using our preferences to reduce the number of things we need to choose from and making it more likely we’ll buy something.
We can also provide a direction for progress. Stern caveat: this doesn’t always need to be prescriptive. There’s often room for latitude, but we should at least be plotting a general course and promoting a feeling of progress. If this notion of fuzzy beacons appeals, we’re very fond of the work of Dr Jason Fox. Read more. Tarry not.
Finally, we can simplify lengthy or complex content using imagery. Not only do we consume images around 60,000 times faster than text, but visual also transcends geographic and literacy barriers. This is the reason we see important signage accompanied by a symbol, why wikiHow uses illustration as the primary instructional element, and the only reason any of us manage to assemble anything from IKEA.
If you’re expecting another segue, you’ll not be disappointed! We’re four for four and the mention of visual leads us uncannily into our fifth…
Without going too deep in the theory (such unnecessary complexity!), it’s worth knowing that there are principles that influence how we visually make sense of things.
Back in the 1920s, a group of German psychologists discovered that our minds are constantly trying to create order and simplicity from seemingly complex and disconnected elements. They summed these findings up in a fascinating and delightfully German-sounding theory known as Gestalt. In overly-simplified summary: we subconsciously group elements that are similar, connected, close, enclosed together, continuing or moving the same way, or parallel to each other. It also shows that our minds have the tendency to complete unfinished objects or patterns.
In addition to Gestalt, we can make it easier to process information by showing hierarchy. Scale, colour and weight all help convey an order of importance. Newspapers and publications present a fine example, breaking content into weighted headlines, subheadings and body copy to increase comprehension.
Sequence is important too — either prioritising the most important or attention-seizing features, or beginning with the basics and establishing the fundamentals before going deeper.
And so we come to our final point, and your old pal here has been stubbornly trying to coax a segue for the past thirty minutes. Just one sentence, but… nothing. And so, onwards without transition…
Back into our brains, and a predilection towards recognition over recall. More simply: we find it easier to recognise things we’ve previously experienced, than recalling specific information from memory. If you’ve ever recognised a face, then broken your brain trying to remember their name while using awkwardly generic salutations like mate, buddy or bro — you’ll have felt this phenomenon firsthand.
The simplest systems don’t require us to remember specific procedures or processes, but use familiar signals and cues to lead us to the desired outcome.
When we ooze bleary and befuddled from an all night flight into a foreign country, we generally aren’t at our perkiest. Yet no matter how groggy-minded, we still manage to navigate mazes of generic corridors with relatively little difficulty. If someone tried to explain the way from the plane to the entrance, even accompanying it with a map, it would most likely be a very different experience. The process of getting from arrivals to baggage claim remains quite complex, yet effective wayfinding design renders this complexity simple.
I’ll confess that this is a little wordier than I’d intended. I’d imagined a far pithier piece, given the subject matter. Necessary complexity? I think so. Minimum fat? I’ve taken shears and pruned enthusiastically several times. But, surely there’s a simple way to summarise it all?
Perhaps… let’s peek four applications of complex material simplified to increase comprehension, engagement and experience.
We’ve used this example before, but when it comes to embedding culture — messaging doesn't get any more simple or effective.
Important metrics should always be visualised, but we know that simplicity is more than that. In the case of the PepsiCo safety reporting, we built branded Powerpoint templates to not only share complicated data in a simple and engaging way, but also make it simple for the global EHS team to update in-house.
Back to our earlier example — the new London Underground maps include the number of steps between stations to show when walking is an easier option than tinning sardines and crowded carriages. Simplicity through addition? Who’d have thunk.
Policies and processes can be complicated. They needn’t be. Infact, if we want them to stick — they shouldn’t be. Our work with the forward-thinkers at PepsiCo EHS takes a complex yet important document and transforms it into an engaging tool by changing the delivery format, finding relevance and visualising content. Everything you need, nothing you don’t.