Those of us living in the modern world are spoiled by convenience. Businesses are thriving on making things more and more convenient. Ordering food to your door, hailing a ride from your phone, same-day delivery, streaming music online, wearing a computer on your face, credit cards… the list of products goes on and spans every industry over hundreds of years.
The common thread between these advancements is that they save time and ease pain more than the incumbent solutions. This convenience almost always comes from simplification of the task at hand. Simplicity begets convenience. Convenience begets customers.
But, where does that simplicity come from? How is it achieved? How is it mastered?
Start by defining the problem-solution space
Product designers solve problems by identifying pain points and then creating a holistic solution to reduce or eliminate them. As problems become more complex, so can the solutions, which is why it’s important to implement a disciplined process to preserve simplicity.
“Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. … The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It really is fundamental.”” — Jony Ive
I look at product design as the relationship between two spaces: the problem-space and the solution-space. The problem-space is the aggregate of all pain points the product wants to address. The solution-space is the aggregate of all aspects that, when brought together, provide relief to the paint points defined in the problem-space. Clearly defining these spaces will directly impact the simplicity of your product.
Defining the problem-space should always be the first step of product design. It’s as important to decide what problems you’re not going to solve as it is to decide the problems you are going to solve. The smaller and more focused the problem-space, the simpler the solution-space can be. The more pain points your product tries to address, the bigger the problem-space and the more complex the solution-space can become.
“Simplicity is bringing order to complexity.” — Jony Ive
In this phase, I would encourage you to lay out all of the problems you want to address. Itemize all of the challenges your potential customers are facing today that you believe are related and can be solved by a single solution.
The first pass on your problem space should be broad. Don’t hold back in fear that your product will be too complex, as you’ll have the opportunity to cut scope while you’re defining the solution-space.
Once you’ve defined the problem-space, you can start to develop your solution-space. The solution-space is essentially your laundry list of product features that you believe will address everything in your problem-space. Every aspect of your solution-space should directly address every aspect of your problem-space. No more, no less. The result is a product that doesn’t do anything it doesn’t need to. Removing unnecessary overhead increases simplicity.
This solution-space is where you must test the cohesion of your product. Now is the time to notice if there are some pieces that don’t fit together we ll. Complexities and gaps in the user experience combined with complexities and snags in the implementation are the clues that your solution-space is not yet well rounded. This process can take several iterations, and is natural to product development. Taking the time to notice, observe, and then act in the face of sunk costs is what separates the good from the bad.
If your solution space doesn’t balance out your problem space, your product can be perceived as underpowered or too simple:
Conversely, if your solution space outweighs your problem space, your product can be perceived as too complex or heavy.
Striking a balance between the two spaces is the secret to simplicity
One of my childhood friends was making spaghetti for the first time and he put too much salt into the pot. Not understanding how things work, he tried to balance the salt by adding sugar. Then adding more salt. And more sugar. What he ended up with was most likely a disaster.
I often see product designers making the same essential mistake as my friend cooking spaghetti. When the product isn’t working as intended, they add more pieces to the solution-space to try to make it better. More often than not, it’s removing pieces from the problem-space, not adding to the solution-space, that will help maintain the essence of simplicity.
If ever you’re banging your head against the wall because you just can’t figure it out, take a step back and look at your problem-solution space holistically. Try to reduce the number of pieces you have to connect. You might have more than one product on your hands.
“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.” — Jony Ive
The spirit of simplicity lies in creating harmony between the problems you choose to solve, and how you solve them. When all of the pieces of your product are absolutely necessary, obvious, and in fluid agreement — simplicity can be achieved.