The dark side of simplicity

Life is effort. Life is energy. But we’re always looking for the shortcut, the low-hanging fruit. As Steve Krug famously said: “Don’t make me think.” The more complex the world becomes, the more we crave simplicity, while at the same time wanting to benefit from the positives that complexity brings.

“Whenever we are about to substitute a laborious activity such as learning a language, cooking a meal, or tending to plants with a?—?deceptively?—?simple solution, we might always ask ourselves: Should the technology grow?—?or the person using it?” So questions Ralph Ammer in his blog post, Make me think!

“Highly sophisticated systems work flawlessly, as long as things go as expected,” Ammer continues. “When a problem occurs which hasn’t been anticipated by the designers, those systems are prone to fail. The more complex the systems are, the higher are the chances that things go wrong. They are less resilient.”

Simplicity sucks energy. I read somewhere that the energy required for Alexa to turn off the lights for you is far greater than the energy you would expend by actually getting up and turning off the lights yourself. Not to mention the fact that many of us would be much healthier if we spent more physical energy every day.

Simplicity creates insecurity. Creating the frictionless experience requires designing the seamless organization. Data needs to be able to flow easily across all the touchpoints. These environments are harder to secure and when a hacker gets into one ‘touchpoint’ they often have access to all the data.

Simplicity creates dependency. I walk a lot more because of Google maps. I travel extensively and always used to get taxis once I arrived in a foreign city, because my sense of direction is terrible. However, occasionally, Google has led me to some strange places. And when the map goes down, I feel a real sense of helplessness.

Simplicity is manipulative. “YouTube’s most famous frictionless feature — the auto-playing function that starts another video as soon as the previous one has finished — has created a rabbit-hole effect that often leads viewers down a path to increasingly extreme content,” Kevin Roose writes for the New York Times in December 2018.

Simplicity is addictive. Not thinking can become a bad habit. You can just keep watching, keep going with the flow. The less effort you make, the lazier you get. At what point do those who make your life simpler make your life?

Mark Zuckerberg has championed the “frictionless experience”. Jeff Bezos has talked about how his competitor’s complexity is his opportunity. “For Facebook, “frictionless sharing” was a thinly veiled cover for the company’s true goal of getting users to post more often, and increasing the amount of data available for ad targeting,” Kevin Roose writes for the New York Times. “For YouTube, auto-playing videos have sharply increased view time, thereby increasing the platform’s profitability. And for Amazon, tools like one-click ordering have created a stunningly efficient machine for commerce and consumption.”

Some things are worth the effort. If you’re not thinking then someone is thinking for you. The ethical thing to do is to help people make good decisions for their lives, their futures. Stripping away the complexity that confuses and frustrates is always great. But making it simple just so as people will spend more and more of their time and money, just so as to get more data from them in order to exert greater control over them, is unethical.

We can build a better world with digital. A world that truly benefits the many, not just the few. But to do that we’ll need a moral compass and we’ll really have to think.

Is Tech Too Easy to Use? Kevin Roose

Make me think! the design of complexity Ralph Ammer



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