Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Donald Norman on Simplicity

Donald Norman recently wrote an odd column singing the praises of complexity. He challenges the conventional "do one thing and do it well" wisdom:

[P]eople want the features. [S]implicity is a myth whose time has past [sic], if it ever existed.
In a related article about Google, Norman wrote:

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use [than Google's].
Yes, I did a double-take when I read that statement, too. Visiting the Yahoo home page to perform a web search takes longer than visiting the Google home page to perform a web search, if just because of the time it takes for a browser to load the Yahoo home page.

Yet Norman's claim is actually that Google is more complex for users who are trying to do something other than search. He has a point. If Jane goes to the Google home page to check her Gmail account, she probably has to go through more time and effort than Joe trying to get to his Yahoo Mail account from the Yahoo home page. The reason is that Google's home page is so sparse that it's not obvious how to get to Gmail from it. Yahoo, on the other hand, has a potpourri of links on its home page, including to its mail service.

But the obvious point that Norman seems to miss is that Google has a more popular, more profitable, and more beloved search engine than Yahoo. Simplicity is winning the search engine battle. Norman's example of Google and Yahoo undermines his own criticism of simplicity.

Nonetheless, underlying Norman's observations about Google are some important lessons about categories and some genuine challenges that Google faces. I will describe some of these lessons and challenges in my next entry.


Mike said...

Not really google isn't better because its simple, its better because it returns more useful results

Roger L. Cauvin said...

I'd like to see some hard facts demonstrating what's responsible for Google's success. Is it because people believe it returns more useful results? Or is it because the page is simpler and cleaner? Or some combination thereof?

One thing's for sure: Google places a lot of emphasis on simplicity, and they do a lot of user testing.

Regardless, I don't see how Norman can point to search in support of his contention that users prefer complexity.

Mike said...

Personally, I know I use it because of the results it returns. Before Goog - Altavista, hotbot, etc., didn't have overly complex interfaces, (not as simple as google, but not as complicated as yahoo) but the first couple of times I got results back that put things I was really looking for higher, I knew I'd found a new search engine.

As far as the complexity issue, I know that there's certain things I like about all the major portals. Google finance has a nice matrix of of sectors, their chart while interesting, isn't as useful to me as MSN. Yahoo has benefits as well, message boards, better in depth industry info, better portfolios.

The problem that they all have is that there is zero friction for the user. If I was looking for desktop apps to manage say investing, it would be a hassle to have reinstall a new system, port everything over, etc. On the web my friction is one mouse click on a bookmark. I don't like Yahoo's charts, click to MSN or GOOG, who cares?

Ultimately though for me, I do want very, very specific features, and if you don't have it, I"ll go somewhere else.