Screenshot of an online poker website

The darker side of ‘simplicity’

Simplicity is something we are told to strive for as designers.

It’s a near-religious doctrine: don’t make the user think. Remove all un-necessary elements. Make it as easy as possible for users to complete their tasks.

This is a powerful argument because it is itself simple. It appeals to our natural tendency to see the world in black & white: simple good; complex bad. But could simple sometimes be bad?

Is it always good for people to be able to complete their tasks as simply as possible? Most of the time, yes of course. But surely there are exceptions to this. How about online gambling, particularly on the mobile platform?

So simple to bet your next mortgage payment on black.  Go on - put it all on black.
So simple to bet your next mortgage payment on black.
Go on – put it all on black.

The Simplicity Doctrine suddenly looks ethically bankrupt – the ability to lose a month’s wages in a couple of rounds of poker without even leaving your sofa is socially indefensible. No social brakes – move to an empty room of your choice. Easy one-click login: card details remembered for next time. This is a simple user experience, but is it good?

There’s a reason why laws state gun cabinets must have locks, even though it would be a whole lot easier and simpler for users to retrieve their guns without a lock in place. No gun cabinet manufacturer would feel under pressure to remove that lock for the sake of simplicity, but the same cannot often be said for designers of online interactions – even when the potential for disasterous consequences is real.

Designers of online interactions are disconnected with our end-users in a way that gun cabinet manufacturers are not, and we need to admit this encourages ethics to fly out of the window sometimes.

This isn’t an argument against the entirely valid mechanics of designing for simplicity. Gestalt visual grouping just works, because it’s based on a concrete physiological and psychological foundation. But we need to be aware of our tendancy to equate that all-powerful label – SIMPLE – with the label: GOOD.

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