Not everything in life should be a button

The Complexity Is Human Series

No designer would argue with simplicity, clarity, consistency, and quality. Few designers would argue against beauty, utility, charm, and efficiency. In this series, I will attempt to do so. The ultimate objective of this exercise is debate and exploration.

Strip it the bare essentials. Make it minimal. Less is more. KISS. Simplicity.

This is the mantra emblazoned on our walls, chanted in our meetings, and recited in our heads as we design. This is the principle perfected by the products we worship, embodied by the heroes we admire, and touted as the banner under which we march. This seems to be the answering light and the beckoning call to our flailing and thrashing in the creative dark.

But in our single-minded search for simplicity, have we boiled the creativity out of our expression, the nature out of our art, the humanity out of our language, the diversity out of our thought?

This is the question I ask myself now when I come across a design rationale or principle that trumpets simplicity without further justification, greater nuance, or stronger intent. I wonder: Did you mean to make it simple? Why did you make it simple? Why did you do it for this case? What do you expect to happen? What else could happen?

As a great designer told me recently, principles without opinion are truisms, nice and easy to agree with but ultimately not helpful if you want to take meaningful action. What then is simplicity without reason? More importantly, what is simplicity without forethought? What happens when simplicity ignores or obscures complexity?

We’ve reduced the entire spectrum of human emotions to just six (I guess it’s better than one?). We’ve edited out dimension and difference until only pure planes of color remain (if you’re lucky enough to use or see color). We’ve cut down our vocabulary until only a bland handful of words are left to describe every product and experience (until only one remains — Paper). We want so badly to reach the universal, the inoffensive and simple, that we whitewash the beauty of the specific, the ambivalent and complex.

Let’s talk first about feelings. Everyone’s feelings. Everyone’s feelings on the internet.

On Facebook, you can express acknowledgement, agreement, or adoration by clicking Like. You can Like anything from the latest mass murder by firearm, to the last episode of Game of Thrones, to your acquaintance’s new baby/puppy. The dopamine trigger is the same.

Soon you will be able to react in more varied, perhaps less ambiguous ways: Like, Angry, Sad, Wow, Haha, and Love. Facebook sifted sticker searches and short comments into these six categories. Now you can laugh at the ridiculous instead of approving it. Now Love can claim its rightful place as special reward while Like finally shuffles off as the default nod. Now you can differentiate between Sad and happy, if you can figure out how happy.

But Facebook left out the options that were not universal enough. Notably, “Yay”. How will I ever be able to express how I feel about the new neighborhood ramen shoppe, finding the right word, and pockets? Someone somewhere doesn’t understand excitement (or maybe just the excitement emoji) but my excitement still needs space in which to jump, shout, and grin uncontrollably. Does an individual and internal reality exist if it is not allowed to be social and shared? Don’t even get me started on Confused.

What about other sentiments, say Fremdschämen, Iktsuarpok, or Gigil? Shouldn’t our new emotional language, emoji, reflect the complexity and creativity of the emotions and words already out there? Perhaps Facebook expects you to use stickers and comments instead of emoji when you want to fully express your Schadenfreude versus your Fremdschämen. These features exist already so you may pick the smirkiest dancing devil or write the finest condolences without limiting yourself.

But why even have one-touch reactions at all? And why did Facebook choose just six? Who does it benefit?

Ostensibly, it makes the task of reacting to posts faster and simpler for the hovering Facebook masses (on the obligatory go). You don’t have to think about it; just feel and touch. However, by thinking less about our reactions and making less physical effort, we are diminishing the meaning and value of our reactions and making them less humane over time.

Let’s say 6 Reactions cover 99% of emotional cases. I post on Facebook a story of how my mother chained my ankle to my bike when I was a child so I couldn’t go out and play. Do I want 543 Likes, 543 Sad emojis, or 1 considered comment?

Perhaps Medium is more suited for pitiable tragihistory. Facebook is only for the latest information. Let’s say I Liked the announcement of a new member joining the group. Do I have to scroll down the feed and Like every announcement now? If I don’t, will anyone notice that I abstained and wonder why? Teenagers sure do.

Let’s say 50 of my Facebook acquaintances voted Angry or Sad in response to a report of systematic bias against female contributors on GitHub. Now what?

The simplicity of Like and Reactions encourages people to bypass or abbreviate the real complexity of human interactions and conditions, to poke instead of participate, to wave from a distance instead of walk forward. Do these features make our interfaces more dynamic and “alive” or do they displace more personal conversations? Does decreasing cognitive load minimize mental attachment and moral awareness?

Simple data most benefits the systems that collect the data and the people who want to use it, for good or for ill, for meaningful content or for relevant ads (blurring line). If Facebook’s sole goal was to enable creative emotive expression, Facebook Reactions would look more like Slack’s (though TBH I don’t know how they’d allow a few billion people to upload custom emojis). By constraining the variety of choices, Facebook proudly optimizes for the lowest common denominator and the tiniest possible connection.

In an ideal internet, everyone would engage each other with colorful and kind commentary. Everyone would have the time (and ability and desire) to write, read, and empathize with care. But the world is what it is (just read the news) and Reactions are shortcuts that might help more than they harm.

But shortcuts are prone to pitfalls. Mental shortcuts help us quickly judge friend from foe but also mislead us with stereotypes and biases. Reactions may help us connect more quickly but also cause us to opt for breadth over depth when conducting our social exchanges. Not all stories are universal, not all stories are easy to understand. The struggle and exertion it takes to overcome that distance between your own experience and someone else’s experience may be worth more than a cursory gesture.

Simplicity alone is not enough. As we evaluate design options, we should not overlook motives and consequences that complicate our intentions. But that is not a one-word slogan.

To be continued. Words and views do not necessarily represent those of my employer(s).