Complexity and emotion in design


I like some of Don Norman‘s (now slightly older) theses about complexity and emotion in design. In an online essay entitled Emotional Design: People and Things he writes,

Products differ in their appeal on the three design dimensions, but so too do people and situations. Some people are behavioral, emphasizing the behavioral level in their choices. Some are visceral, going by appearances. Some are reflective, considering what others will think – although it is the rare person who will admit to this trait.

He then goes on to discuss the intrinsic complexity of the world, and the things we design for it: “Design is complex business, not only because the products themselves are complex but because of the complexity of people and their needs.”

This is a theme that he develops further in another essay called Simplicity is Not the Answer. Here, he argues that complexity is a given in our world. “People want the extra power that increased features bring to a product, but they intensely dislike the complexity that results. Is this a paradox? Not necessarily. Complexity can be managed.”

The real challenge, then, is not to try and design things that are artificially simple (that would simply result in more single-purpose objects and services that don’t continue to engage and that clutter our homes, computers and minds), but rather to design things that are understandable.

I’m finding myself reflecting lately how this idea plays in technology. The announcement of the iPad may be an interesting example of where Norman’s thoughts might help us re-frame the discussion.

I sense that what Apple has successfully done with the iPhone, and what it will likely repeat with the iPad, is to create an understandable device that offers sufficient complexity for me to achieve the things I need to achieve (“There’s an app for that”) while shielding me from having to be a technician in order to be productive with it.

This, plus its physical features, result in an emotional response to the product that other technology things simply do not have. Where my MacBook Pro has the wonderful physical design, materials that are pleasant to touch, etc., it does not offer the same completely intuitive “surface depth” that the iPhone (and, I assume, iPad) has.

And by “surface depth” I mean the idea of allowing just enough complexity while always ensuring understandability.

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