Lessons in simplicity from some very smart people

I did a talk recently here about simplicity. This post is a loose representation of that.

One day they’ll pass a law that makes it a legal requirement for oven hobs to have burners that are configured in exactly the same grid as the controls. Until that day, we must hunt and kill such unnecessary complexity.

“Complicated seems clever to stupid people.”

Dave Trott

I prefer this quote to oft-used “Keep It Simple, Stupid” because the person striving for simplicity is absolved of their stupidity.

Anyway. When I was double checking the attribution of the above quote to Dave Trott, I noticed this written in the comments.

“Instructing people to make something simple is as helpful as instructing people to make something famous.”

Good point, well made.

So if we can’t aim for simplicity, what should we do?

This is a good thought:

“Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.”

Paul Rand

Back in 1912, Walter H. Deubner had a good idea and modest expectations.

Walter owned a grocery store in Minnesota. He was a very observant kind of guy. And like every businessman, he wanted to sell more stuff. If you already have a business that’s selling stuff, there are two ways to do this:

  1. Find more customers and sell the same to stuff them.
  2. Find a way to sell more stuff to existing customers.

Walter took option 2, since he had ample opportunity to observe his customers when they came to his grocery store.

He noticed that customers would only purchase what they could carry. And because he had modest expectations, he didn’t expect those customers to make multiple visits to his store, bring a friend to help them carry their things, or just get better at balancing more stuff.

So he created his own simple solution. And that was a brown paper bag, with a gusset and some handles. A bag for carrying more things. A carrier bag.

I think it’s fair to say Walter’s idea took off.

Simple solutions come from having a deep understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.

“To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.”

Henry Heinz

That’s one of my favourite quotes. And there’s much to admire about Henry Heinz’s approach to integrating products and marketing.

Back in 1896, his challenge was to introduce Fresh Grated Horseradish to the condiment world. But he had the same feedback time and again:

“How fresh can it be?”

It was a fair question. And one that would’ve been difficult to answer for every grocery store owner. So Henry Heinz decided to do something revolutionary: he decided to put his Fresh Grated Horseradish in a glass bottle to show everyone exactly how fresh it was.

It was the first time groceries had ever been sold in clear containers.

Simple can still be wildly innovative

In 1971, a couple of very smart guys by the names of Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie were pleading with the management of Bell Labs for a new computer. They promised they’d use it to write a great tool for editing and formatting text.

What they didn’t tell management is that they’d also need to write the underlying operating system.

Their operating system was a collection of smaller programs that could be chained together, so the output of one became the input of another.

And so Unix was born.

“Unix is simple. It just takes a genius to understand its simplicity.”

Dennis Ritchie

Over 40 years later, and Bell Labs (as a phone company) is no more. And yet now Unix runs on your phone.

Simplicity ages well.

I think I’ve become more and more obsessed with the quest for beautiful simplicity because we’ve made so many mistakes while building our booking system, Inn Style.

It’s easy to get sucked in to adding features because you can, or because they’ve been suggested by someone you’re trying to please, or because you’re scared nobody will use your app if you don’t ship said feature.

But I’ve learnt from people like Des Traynor that saying “no” to these suggestions is one of the most powerful things you can do to make your software great.

And as a result, my recent work has been consolidating some of these features into one simpler version. Or just getting rid of them completely.

Those are not easy decisions to make. After all, you’re throwing away things that you thought were okay once, and paid somebody to build. But simplicity isn’t the easiest route, and nor is it the first road taken.

“Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it.”

Alan Perlis

Further reading:


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