The Goldilocks Principle: Make Unbearable Products Just Right
MAYA’s Goldilocks Principle: Optimal product usability is achieved when the amount of complexity required for operation — neither too much nor too little — enhances rather than impedes the user’s experience.
I’ve seen products of all kinds — from software to sailboats — suffer from feature creep: the tendency of systems to have features added but never removed. Feature creep can get so bad that the overabundance of features, especially those that are rarely used, obstructs users as they try to perform routine tasks.
How can the complexity of such products be tamed without reducing their utility?
Excising features can sometimes help. But is not uncommon to pursue simplicity to the extreme, lopping off features to the point of impotence.
In mature products, complexity can be necessary, providing a high level of utility through the inclusion of many controls, adjustments, and functions. Consider a racing sailboat, with many lines, blocks, and cleats necessary to control the shape of the sail. (See Figure 1.)
Now consider this sail configuration, called the transition rig, invented by Richard Dryden. (See Figure 2.)
The transition rig has a variable geometry that adjusts to changing wind conditions. Of course, so does the rig of the c420 shown earlier, but it requires several control lines (a halyard, a vang, a cunningham, an outhaul, and a downhaul, at least) to achieve the same effect. Although sailing with the transition rig is more straightforward, manufacturing it is not. It requires a rotating base and several joints constructed from carbon fiber and stainless steel.
What has happened here? The complexity didn’t disappear. It shifted. Larry Tesler’s “Law of Conservation of Complexity” states that, “You cannot reduce the complexity of a given task beyond a certain point. Once you’ve reached that point, you can only shift the burden around.”
With the transition rig, complexity has moved from the use of the product to the design and construction. In many cases, this is a desirable trade-off, especially for mature products, whether they are software interfaces, physical controls, or even web sites. As computers get more powerful, materials more advanced, and methods more sophisticated, it makes sense to move more of the complexity away from users.
Shifting complexity puts the burden back on the product designers and developers, who have the difficult task of finding the just-right balance between complexity and usability.
That’s where a design partner with expertise in “taming complexity” provides value. By using testing and research to reveal what users are trying to accomplish, focusing on giving them control where needed, and designing the system to do the rest on their behalf, products can achieve their greatest effectiveness and power while more closely fulfilling the ideal to “do what I mean.”