Skip to main content

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.

Comments

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Why Spreadsheets Suck for Prioritizing

The Goal As a company executive, you want confidence that your product team (which includes all the people, from all departments, responsible for product success) has a sound basis for deciding which items are on the product roadmap. You also want confidence the team is prioritizing the items in a smart way. What Should We Prioritize? The items the team prioritizes could be features, user stories, epics, market problems, themes, or experiments. Melissa Perri  makes an excellent case for a " problem roadmap ", and, in general, I recommend focusing on the latter types of items. However, the topic of what types of items you should prioritize - and in what situations - is interesting and important but beyond the scope of this blog entry. A Sad but Familiar Story If there is significant controversy about priorities, then almost inevitably, a product manager or other member of the team decides to put together The Spreadsheet. I've done it. Some of the mos

Use Case as a Black Box

Consider the following use case: Purchase Items Actor: Purchaser Precondition: Purchaser types at least thirty words per minute and has a web navigation efficiency rating of at least 40. Postcondition: For the average Purchaser acting at full efficiency, the number of seconds elapsed is no more than 30 + 20 * n, where n is the number of items purchased. The name of the use case represents a functional requirement. What does the product do, or enable the user to do? Purchase items. What are we to make of the preconditions and postconditions? What relationship do they have to the requirements for the product? Answer: the preconditions and postconditions are the nonfunctional requirements attached to the functional requirement . Another way of expressing the nonfunctional requirement would be as an attribute and associated constraint: Usability: For a Purchaser who types at least thirty words per minute and has a web navigation efficiency rating of at least 40, it shall take no

Henry Ford's "Faster Horse" Quote

You may have heard the ( apocryphal ) Henry Ford quote: If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have said "a faster horse". Over at the On Product Management blog , Saeed gives his take on this infamous quote. He "hates" it, and gives some compelling reasons. Saeed is spot on in his explanations. Personally, I think the quote is great, but it's a matter of interpretation. The valid point of the quote is not that it's a bad idea to facilitate a conversation with your market to better understand it. The valid points are: You must ask the right questions to get valuable answers. You must interpret the answers thoughtfully - often outside their direct meaning - to glean reliable information. Asking questions is not always the best way to "listen" to your market. (E.g., sometimes pure observational studies are more reliable.) Nonetheless, I find the quote is helpful to combat "armchair product management" in the