Steve Jobs was a big believer in the KISS principle. So did the famous British computer pioneer Tony Hoare.
KISS stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”, a design mantra that has been popular in the tech world for decades.
Hall once explained: “There are two approaches to software design. One is to make the program so simple that there are obviously no errors. The other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious errors.”
Needless to say, Hall favors the former over the latter.
No inventor strives to make their creations so complex as to confuse users, just as no rational person deliberately complicates his own life: life skills classes preach minimalism, and there is no marketing Tricks to mystify machinery.
So, if KISS is a universal adage, why do so many of us end up in entanglements of our own making? Why are TV remotes so complicated?
Keeping it simple may seem more complicated than you might think. But the solution lies in a better understanding of the complexities of simplicity.
Canadian tech entrepreneur Dan DeMers is frustrated: The devices we use not only add more functionality to us, but also take up more of our time.
He laments that every new technology comes with a flood of features or applications that few people have the time or inclination to use.
“I see this pattern over and over again. It’s easier for vendors to provide add-on solutions, provide workarounds, band-aids, add rather than remove.
“New technology adds complexity,” he said.
The prime example, he said, is smartphones.
“Every year there’s a new model with some new features, and every year the media and the market go crazy about it … cramming more and more without really thinking about what’s necessary.
“Seriously, there’s a phone out there with 16 cameras in it.
“That’s not the promise of technology. That’s not why we’re excited about it. It’s supposed to make life easier; it’s supposed to take away.”
There is an urgent need to rethink how innovation is prioritized, DeMers said, acknowledging that any increase in capabilities will only increase gains up to a point.
After that, you reach what he calls “peak complexity” and the returns start to dwindle.
“On the other side of the peak is collapse, which means either we’re headed for massive social collapse, or we’re in the early stages of a simplification revolution.”
He attributes part of the problem to the hype cycle and rising expectations — the need to constantly dazzle customers and show that your technology is the brightest and best.
Instead, he wants technology to go the other way — with a simplified approach. Embrace the adage that less is more.
“There are a lot of new technologies that allow you to do things that you couldn’t do before,” he said.
“But the ones that are really exciting, the ones that are transformative are the ones where you don’t have to do things that you used to do.”
know when to stop
So whether you’re developing a new installation or decluttering your personal affairs, simplification is a worthy goal, but not a virtue in itself.
Try to simplify too far, and you risk inadvertently reintroducing confusion and complexity. Take it a step further, and things become so simple that it becomes beyond comprehension.
Design expert Michael Lissack says it’s important to step back and adopt an objective, calm perspective.
“The way to determine the right point is to ask yourself whether asking more questions would make a difference,” he said.
In other words, if someone questions what you’re trying to simplify, you’ve clearly gone too far and need to add more detail.
It’s also important to understand that every simplification comes with trade-offs, he said.
“The tradeoff is what you choose to focus on, and what you ignore.
“If you simplify, you focus on a few elements and say, ‘This is where the focus should be,’ and if they’re right, that’s great.
“It would be terrible if they were wrong.”
But beware of the analogy trap
Lissack also warns of the dangers of relying too much on assumptions and making simple, easy comparisons.
Many of us rely on analogies to make sense of the world, a shorthand that provides simple explanations for what’s going on. We use them all the time, even if we often don’t realize it. We are always looking to past events and actions to try to decipher current issues.
But Lissack warns that lazy analogies can lead people to focus only on similarities, which can blur perspective.
“By definition, if you’ve identified a set of similarities, then everything else is different,” he said.
“We don’t talk about differences; we only talk about similarities. Differences may be more important.
“Similarly, if the things we see are consistent with our general view of how the world works, we may not bother to question whether there is some difference, [or] Some important context specificity.
“Or is there an underlying assumption that everything remains the same.”
Take cultural, racial and urban sensitivities, for example.
For example, while Australia and Japan are close allies—both prosperous, modern urban democracies—we have very different manners, ethnic makeup, and housing styles.
This is the way that political theorists and pundits view international developments, especially in times of conflict, as Sarah Percy has often observed.
Associate Professor teaches International History at the University of Queensland. She said analogies are increasingly being used to match contemporary people and events with historical records.
A major recent example is comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.
“So normally, when we have an international crisis [like the current war in Ukraine]you will often see people saying that this crisis is like Munich in 1938 [for example]if we don’t deal with Vladimir Putin, then we will have the same problems we saw in Munich in 1938,” she said.
But this simplification can be misleading and distorting.
“The problem with using historical crisis analogies is that historical crises are often quite different from each other, and just because something involved a strongman dictator doesn’t mean we’re in Munich in 1938,” she said.
“Putin is definitely not Hitler.
“And I think the lesson that people have learned from Munich is that it’s not good to appease the strongman. But we may have situations where it’s actually not such a bad idea to appease the strongman.
“We may have situations where the strongman can be appeased. We may have situations where the strongman cannot be appeased in other circumstances.”
In other words, thinking by analogy is highly subjective and should be avoided at all costs, Dr. Unless users clearly understand and acknowledge the limitations of the comparisons they employ, Percy said.
“At least two or three times a semester, I can walk into class and say, ‘Did you see that on the news last night, someone made this analogy?’ That’s how often it happens.
“I often say to my students, do we really think this is like Munich in 1938? In what ways is it similar and in what ways is it different?”
This is probably as good as keeping it simple.
RN in your inbox
Get more stories beyond the news cycle with our weekly newsletter.