• In Defense of Hard

    The permeation of software in society has given everyone the opportunity to do what only professionals were capable of in years past. The web has only accelerated its progression. There are whole new segments of the population who are now frequently publishing their writing, editing video, and processing photos, among other things. The problem, however, is that to meet the needs of this new untrained audience, the methods of interaction have been over-simplified in the process. Instead of bringing everyone up to a higher proficiency, this is dragging everyone down, including professionals, to a lower state. Superficially designed products create superficial understandings of the subject matter. Expect more of your audience, give them a good reason why it is worth their time, and you will have a better audience as well as a better product.

    When easy becomes vapid

    The line between simple and simplistic is highly subjective. I think the line has been crossed when an articulation of a concept strips a level of complexity from its subject for the sake of ease that, consequently, creates negative implications for the user. It can happen anywhere; from interfaces, to copywriting, to how concepts are articulated. Cable news is often guilty of this in the presentation and debate of political policy, ultimately driving down the public’s understanding of the subject matter. Perhaps a more contentious example of this would be the spell-checking feature in word processors that have made today’s writers too dependent on the feature and unable to properly proofread.

    Vapidity lets people down

    Immeasurable time and resources are put into removing any perceived cognitive overhead in a wide array of our daily interactions. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this, however, over-emphasis on easy comes at a cost. Often, this effort results in a shallow derivative of the subject’s original form which ends up trivializing both subject and user. The premise for removing difficulty is correct, many people do feel intimidated when they are presented with too much complexity. However, the conclusion to remove complexity at any cost misses the mark. While people do feel intimidated when presented with complexity, the issue is often how the subject matter is presented or contextualized. Rather than deal with the real problem of explaining and guiding people through difficult topics and/or processes, it is simply removed or devolved. This results in viewing potentially innovative solutions as dead on arrival if they happen to have the unfortunate side-effect of a learning curve.

    Simplistic products can give the false impression of competence which removes the user’s incentive to learn and improve. Instead of encouraging users to grow, it ends up wasting their time by giving them the illusion of aptitude. This can lead a person to remain dependent on the product or experience a sense of let-down when the user discovers their knowledge of the subject matter was inadequate. Placating the desire to remove effort in every facet of our lives creates an expectation that unless a product holds your hand through an entire process, auto-magically takes care of everything for you, and, god forbid, makes you think, it is somehow lacking.

    An example of trivializing important, complex experiences is found on legacy.com. The website takes the burden out of sharing your condolences by writing it for you.

    Writing the condolences for the loss of a loved one should be complex, time-consuming and, yes, hard. There should be nothing easy about it. This is a prime example of how over-simplifying tasks and ideas robs opportunities for growth. As soon as something this fundamental to who we are is made so soulless and vapid, it strips us of our most essential personal experiences. Making the naturally complex process unnaturally painless for the sake of the user’s convenience treats neither they nor the subject with respect and ultimately strips them of any confidence in performing the actual task when it inevitably becomes necessary.

    No one advocates for intentionally-designed solutions that are obtrusive or convoluted. We should not need to “walk in the snow uphill both ways” for every single thing we do in our lives. However, we should also not create the false impression that one can walk downhill both ways.


    The goal of design should be to turn the most difficult into the most enjoyable. While nothing below is particularly new, they are still worth noting.

    Challenge people (in the right ways)

    Some of our most rewarding moments are rooted in overcoming challenges. Not muddling through time-wasting, unnecessarily convoluted moments, but genuinely difficult tasks that we worked through. Why then would we shy away from presenting these types of opportunities to our audiences? There needs to be an expectation or even a demand for people to learn and grow in order to “get to the good stuff.” Vitamin R is an interesting example of an application that helps people reach goals by splitting them into more smaller, more reachable tasks. The important thing here is that there is no intention to simplify the end goal, making easier to accomplish, but rather to restructure it, making the process more manageable.

    Determining the correct level of challenge is obviously a difficult job, but a necessity to deliver a fulfilling experience. Too elementary, and the value to engage may be questioned, too onerous, and frustration kicks in. Difficult job or not, this equilibrium has been considered crucial to maintain a state of flow; a concept proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi states three conditions for flow, one of which being, “a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.”

    Honest trumps simple

    In dumbing down our language, our concepts and processes, we are often times warping its true form. If the appropriate language to communicate a concept is complicated, use it. There are plenty of well established methods to help people through these types of issues without resorting to editorial or design changes. It is OK not to understand something, it is not OK to think you know something that is not accurate.

    Rather than edit content to be easier to read, The New York Times website allows you to select words and look up the meaning in a dictionary.

    Simple, with depth

    Some of the most successful products don’t take much time to learn, but take much time to master. It comes from taking complexity and either rendering it in a simple manner or delaying exposure to it until the user is ready for it, not from removing it altogether. What is elementary should be explicit and obvious, what is difficult can be revealed in more subtle ways where the user can decide to engage when they are ready for it. OS X in general is an example of an informationally-dense interface that is presented elegantly. A great example of this is all its hidden gems that quietly provide a large amount of information. One of those gems is the close button’s unsaved state. If a file has unsaved changes, the close button will have a dark dot in the middle.

    an image of an unsaved document

    Explicit? No. However, I doubt that was the intention of this design decision. It was there, adding depth to the experience if/when it was noticed, but not critical if missed.

    Do not avoid necessary complexity, articulate why it’s important

    If a subject is naturally complex, work to make it no more complex than it needs to be, but no less. People are not naturally averse to complexity, however they need to know it is worth their time and energy. Educating them on how to do something is not enough, there should be education on why it’s important. People enjoy learning if the subject is interesting and engaging, it is the job of design to not just deliver simplicity, but to also provide delight. A great example of a service fulfilling this aim is On The Run in San Francisco. On The Run sells running shoes in a very unique way. The staff members spend time making sure they give their customers a detailed explanation of how a shoe should fit them, thereby improving their comfort, support, and ultimately, their performance. A session at the store not only gets a customer into a pair of shoes tailored to their needs, but also gives them a strong understanding of the subject and enables them to make better purchases in the future.

    Challenging users in the correct manner will ultimately lead to more engaged, informed, and self-sufficient users. Informed users have a better idea of what they want and can better articulate why they want it. Most importantly, a user who is engaged with a subject is more willing and able to grow with it.

    Examples of making hard enjoyable

    The exciting news is that there are plenty of companies and organizations that are proving to be very successful by not dumbing down their products. Not all of the examples pertain directly to design or UX, but the principles they put into practice are worthy of emulation. Below are a few shining examples.


    TED is perhaps the most obvious on this list, but that makes it no less worthwhile to point out. For years now, TED has been sharing inspirational and challenging video presentations by some of the smartest people in the world. The subject matter is not diluted, or abridged and because of that it captures the imagination and interest of countless viewers.

    a screenshot of the TED homepage


    Think astrophysics, ethics in natural selection, or civil engineering is over your head? Radiolab makes learning accessible and engaging. It makes you want to learn without turning it into a For Dummies book.

    a picture of the two radiolab hosts
    Marco Lau (via The New York Observer)

    Portal/Portal 2

    Valve figured out a way to design a game where the player solves extremely complicated puzzles devoid of hand-holding, has little to no violence, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest video games of our era.

    an image of the Portal game


    Adobe’s photo management software is professional grade, but is also quite accessible to the weekend photographer who may not always need fine tuning. The application is well partitioned, nothing is dumbed down. It does not force the novice user to dig into complex developing processes, but makes them available when the user is ready for it.

    an image of Lightroom 3

    Wrapping it up

    The task to make difficult processes simple, while preserving their true form is significant. Selling it to people can be even more difficult. For myself, the debate is not whether it is necessary, but where the line is drawn between challenging users and creating unnecessary barriers. No matter where that line ends up being for each practitioner, if designers take the easy way out, we can expect no better from users.


    This post was the second go at opening the writing process to the public. The first post written in this manner turned out well and I really believe this one turned out even better. The first draft, second draft, and final draft are still available for viewing. I want to extend my gratitude to all the contributors: Alex Baldwin, Brock French, Honey Mae, Ix, Pam Daghlian, Peter Boersma, and my wife. The feedback was tremendous and made the post significantly better than anything I could have written on my own. Thank you again.

    There are 20 thoughts on this idea

    1. Cindy

      Great stuff! Couldn’t agree more.

    2. Holger Maassen

      Interesting article – Thx – P.J.
      A brief remark from myside. The phrases “”Keep it simple” and “Less is more” all pinpoint the fact that simplicity is important. A frequent mistake is to assume that simplicity is just a matter of reduction, of reducing something which is more complete than the “simple” end result. On the contrary, simplicity requires serious thought and effort about what is really and finally needed by the user, customer etc. . The question is: What supports the user’s aims and goals? And how can we design it best. Simplicity is more complex than you probably think it is – because even complex applications might be easy to use as long it’s well adapted to the users’ expectation and knowledge.
      For one or two this article might be interesting http://ux4dotcom.blogspot.com/2010/08/walk-while-in-someone-elses-shoes.html

    3. P.J. Onori

      @Cindy: Much thanks.

      @Holger: I have a profound respect both for successfully designing simply solutions and for the amount of work it takes to accomplish it. That is why I specifically avoided saying simple should be avoided. However, simplistic should.

    4. kare Anderson

      So timely and so VERY thoughtful. When we work together on a worthy, compelling challenge we not only have breakthroughs, we make meaningful relationships with those who stick it out with us through the easy, early solutions, persist for the long haul then see we’ve accomplished something greater together than we could on our own. That strong sweet spot of shared passion and interest can bring out the best in us, a rare opportunity that we may then want to make less rare in our lives

    5. Gordon Cloke

      This also reminds of the quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity”

      I do not think it is a coincidence that such simplicity (on the far side of complexity) is frequently associated with both beauty and elegance. Wherever we achieve or encounter it, we feel an aesthetic satisfaction which both transforms and engages.

      This is not just some abstract or bohemian ideal, but a mindset that when embraced and pursued can capture hearts, minds (and yes, wallets) throughout our culture/marketplace.

      When we avoid hard things, we ultimately risk diminishing the human experience.

    6. Jill

      Thanks so much for this article, I look forward to sharing and discussing this with my colleagues in software and in classical music, where it can equally apply.
      An aside: this could’ve been coincidental or strategic on your part, and it’s a little beside the point, maybe even shallow on my part… but I really appreciated that the authoritative figure shown in the TED image is a woman.
      : )

    7. P.J. Onori

      @Jill: Thanks for the encouragement! You may also be interested to know that both the protagonist and antagonist in the Portal series are women. Needless to say, that is a rarity in the gaming world.

    8. boblet

      Excellent. One of my pet subjects, this. The only fault I with this article is that I did not write it myself 😉 There is a limit to how simple things can be, and context will show that it is worth the effort to learn. When things are simplified to the extreme it looses meaning. Newscast, for example…

    9. P.J. Onori

      @Kare: Thanks for the kind words. I agree, the experiences we design should aim to bring out more humanity in our daily lives, not less.

      @Gordon: There is a lot of effort put into making menial tasks easier to complete rather than clarifying and enhancing tantamount endeavors, due in large part because the former is often simpler to pull off. Most of the ground-shaking designs tackle the latter.

      @Brandon: Nice reference. Tumblr follow ahoy.

    10. Ian D. Mah

      Wonderful article.
      In a zen sort of way, Simple is complex

      Some random thoughts follow.

      With software nothing infuriates me more than when I can’t do something logical and/or when the idea is simple yet the implementation is convolute. Balance, forethought and time.

      Game recommendation: Armadillo Run (simple to learn) ridiculously hard and fun !


    11. Simon Bostock

      Good stuff.

      One eensie-weensie thing about Adaptive Path email newsletters – they’re great and I often want to bookmark and/or blog about them. But it always takes me a while to find the click that will take me to the post on the web (this time, I clicked on the banner – d’oh, wrong! – then I clicked on your name – nearly there! – and then found this piece at the top of ‘your’ list.

      A link to the piece direct in the mail would be helpful.


    12. Christene Pantalone

      I work with some one who has the fantastic talent of synthesizing complex ideas in ways that our leadership can understand. Not a talent of mine, but I’m working on it. At times, simplification won’t change the content, but instead reframe ideas in order to focus a new viewer on the salient points.

      Clarity trumps simplicity, but most times they do go hand in hand. But communicating an idea and coming up with it are 2 different tasks. When you create some thing or work through a problem, you can’t shy away from the Hard. When a creation is complete or the solution is reached, that’s the point you get that endorphin rush. Acquiring knowlege or understanding some one elses work, doesn’t have that same rush. I think that’s when people will run for the Simple Hills.

      What I like about your article is how it relates to any work/growth the human experience brings (be it art, design, analysis…) “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope…”

      Keep writing!

    13. Kathy Sierra

      This post gives me hope, especially in the face of the gamification frenzy. Thank-you.

    14. sherri

      Making a site look and feel simple has never been simple. I kept thinking that as I was reading your post. Good thoughts.

    15. Conchita

      Following my teacher training, I worked hard to try and apply these ideas at work. I obviously failed. I was an ICT lecturer in the community, in trade union learning and in Further Education.

      Something I learned from my ICT teaching and training experience was, that college course-funding policy and ‘casualisation’ (replacing full-time teachers with hourly paid teachers) has forced teachers to adapt towards the ‘simplistic’.

      I like this phrase: “It is OK to think you know something that is not accurate”, yet the background politics and policies directing the funding of post-compulsory learning in England do not assist teachers’ or students’ experiences to ‘flow’, assuming it has not changed. Formal restructuring and redundancy procedures during 2004 to 2008 have caused my ICT teaching and training career to grind to a halt.

      There are also double-standards in the way the issues are talked about by professionals and by politicians on the theme of post-compulsory education and training, something that is also planned and designed. Double-standards which from my own experience cause situations like this to happen: It is easier for a learning provider to hire ICT industry professionals into colleges, than it is for an hourly-paid ICT lecturer to obtain a work placement within the ICT industry. Professional ICT educators thus are not enabled to ‘evolve’ their practical ICT teaching skills. This is also reflected in the language used, such as the word: ‘talent’.

      Opportunities are offered to pro-rata/full-time members of staff first, the hourly-paid staff usually has to fend for themselves. ‘Talent’ therefore is a ‘privilege’, an expensive ‘perk’ directed at a progressively smaller percentage of the teaching staff, but it shouldn’t be this way I think. I did not choose hourly paid work, the politics of my workplace forced hourly paid work upon me.

      A talented professional has grappled with the hard, to the point that they can automatically make the hard seem simple over a space of time. I find it impossible as an hourly-paid professional to keep up with two professions. During the past 15 years, and I am not unique, my earning power from ICT teaching and training have progressively become unsustainable. I now spend twice and thrice the ‘time’ to keep up some form of professional standing.

      Whereas 20 years ago, I had time to grapple and evolve as an ICT teacher, now my line managers expect me to hit the ground running. I have been contracted to support large mixed groups of students, without myself having effective support, preparation time, or access to the technologies, unless I could finance those things myself. My morale and my finances are now crushed.

      An ICT teacher needs technical and practical know-how in two professions: teaching and ICT. Education in England is now an industry that functions by outsourcing and hiring-in teachers by the hour, like many other industries. At a human level though, the issues written about here are now so much harder for both the ‘creator’ and the ‘communicator’ to balance – my professional experience has been an ever more isolated and under-supported one, living from hand to mouth, I feel that this has equally placed me at a dissadvantage, because of the policies and politics of my particular industry.

      I am expressing an opinion even while I know already that my morale has hit rock bottom, that my motivation has hit 0.0001 in the hope scale and while I am aware that my mental ‘flow’ has now hit a barrier. I now think of myself a failure. Again, my experience is not a unique. As a teacher my job was to motivate students, so I know from experience how debilitating it is to feel a sense of failure, it is something that affected a lot of my learners. It feels to me that existing ‘talent’ is being thrown unnecessarily into the scrap-yard.

      It is shocking for me to admit that policy and politics has had such a bad but contributory effect on my ICT teaching career at many levels, including job-role design. A bad effect because at a human level, what has happened to me in my profession has happened to the professions of a lot of my students.

      ‘Talent’ has become something like a designer label of choice, a privilege, once again, fuelled by the challenging demands from the employers, including those employers who are themselves learning providers, who buy-in ‘talent’ quickly and let go of it quickly again. Enabling a workforce to evolve and flow from within the organization… this is an ideal that I am now unhappily and forcibly ‘divorced’ from.

      I fundamentally agree with this article, solutions to ‘Hard’ problems require a balanced approach.

    16. P.J. Onori

      @boblet: What’s stopping you? You should write a post of your own which adds onto and/or improves this article.

      @Simon: Thanks Simon, we’ll look into this.

      @Ian: The only thing worse than over-simplifying a complex subject is over-complicating a simple one.

      @Christene: I completely agree, more often than not, clarity and simplicity are one in the same.

      @Kathy: It’s too bad, because gamification could really add to deeper knowledge and experiences with many subjects.

      @Conchita: Thank for sharing such a personal story. I am convinced that this desire for easy solutions stems from how much demand is put on individuals nowadays. There needs to be an understanding that a depth of knowledge and expertise takes time and support, plain and simple.

    17. Gabriela

      Very interesting article, thank you very much. I really liked how it touches all that’s been bothering me but I’ve never been able to point out.

    18. Josh Coe

      Nice. Along with the Portal franchise, Braid is another example of super-simple controls and interface elements mixed with complex mechanics to deliver beautiful challenges. And Health Month is a health tracking game that asks a lot of its users, both in interaction and in their offline away-from-game lives, but creates a framework that makes people want to give and learn and challenge themselves.

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