The Tension Between Simple and Obvious

There is some great conversation going on right now about the role of obviousness in product design. A few products have touched off this debate, including a drawing and writing app called Paper, a task list app called Clear, a create your how-to guide called Snapguide, and Apple’s very own photo editing software iPhoto.

The basis of the debate is that products like Paper and Clear use very few buttons, toolbars and other visual guides for how to use the software. Instead they rely on gestures almost exclusively. All you get is the thing you are interacting with. This has been typical of games for a long time but productivity apps have generally used buttons as a guide post. A few articles, most I found via Daring Fireball, worth checking out on the subject if interested:

The argument for is that it creates a beautiful experience that focuses you exclusively on the task at hand. By learning a few gestures you get an extremely simple and elegant application. The argument against is that no chrome and too much reliance on gestures means a steep learning curve that is easy to forget if not using the app all the time.

It’s a good argument to have, I believe, and is at the heart of my Single Box Theory of design. The beauty of a single box is its simplicity. The problem is that it removes much of the obviousness. This means the box itself has to be smart enough to decipher whatever the user intended. Look at Google’s own search box. We all know it can search but did you also know it can calculate, convert and graph? How about get you flight information, sports scores, and stock quotes? It can do hundreds of things to get you real time results if only you know how to structure your query. And that’s the blessing and the curse. Would it have been more obvious for Google to add a list to the screen and ask you what you are looking for? Maybe but it wouldn’t have been as simple.

There is a constant creative tension between these two: simplicity and obviousness. Frankly, it is that tension that makes product design so much fun.