Everyone in my organization wants to make our products & website as simple as possible for our customers. They've seen articles like the one in the Harvard Business Journal (2012) showing that "Decision Simplicity in the purchase process is the #1 reason why consumers are likely to buy your product, do so repeatedly, and recommend it to others."(Excutive Board) or the article in Forbes, "Marketers Have It Wrong: Forget Engagement, Consumers Want Simplicity,"

The problem we have is that "simple" means different things to different people.

I'm looking for a definition of simplicity or complexity that diverse stakeholders (including corporate strategists, product owners, & especially web designers) can agree on. The more research that supports this definition, the better it will work for my stakeholders.

I've seen three books with useful things to say about simplicity that were written by people who focus on research instead of subjective opinion:

  • "The Laws of Simplicity" by John Madea's (2006) written largely from a technology standpoint based on his academic research on design.
  • "From Complexity to Simplicity: Unleash Your Organisation's Potential" by Simon Collinson & Melvin Jay (2012) written from an organizational standpoint based on lots of corporate research.
  • "Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity" by Alan Siegel (of Siegel+Gale) & Irene Etzkorn (2013) written from largely a product branding standpoint & based on lots of customer research.

However, the only one of these that attempted to define simplicity or complexity was Collinson & Jay. I believe they have a good definition, though it is very abstract:

"Complexity = the number of components in a system + the variety of relationships between these components + the pace of change of both the components and the these relationships."

Has anyone seen a better definition of simplicity or complexity that might appeal to corporate strategists, product owners, & web designers, perhaps one a little less abstract?

  • 1
    Obligatory Dilbert comic. Your problem of differing definitions is far from unique. Mar 28, 2014 at 19:50
  • Simple might change a lot from one project to another and from one person to another. IMHO, correct approach would be to define what are the variables being studied and define metrics for them. Eg: Max steps necessary to accomplish task: 3, 5, 7? Mar 28, 2014 at 23:43

1 Answer 1


Instead of "defining simplicity" in terms of other people's publications or studies, try focusing on your company's goals. You may find the definition is less important than the results.

One of the first problems you're likely to run into is a rejection of external studies. Sadly, I've found that otherwise intelligent people will dismiss those studies that conflict with their personal experience, or that disprove corporate mandates. Sometimes the problem is their reviews are written by people who expect them to toe the company line, not to question it. It's also surprisingly difficult for most people to understand that the lowest-common-denominator user has a fifth grade education and an IQ of about 75, and that those users simply aren't able to comprehend the instructions that are crystal clear to those of us in IT. I've also encountered people who won't listen because they have their own agenda; sometimes they'll ignorantly dismiss statistically valid studies with language like "our site is nothing like the site in that study." You simply can't convince some people.

Rather than focus on other people's research, you'll probably have better luck convincing more people by running your own study on your own site. Try to obtain consensus from your various stakeholders to perform your own UX study. Establish clear metrics that everyone can understand, and that personally impact your stakeholders. You may care about simplicity as "mean time from home page to checkout" or "abandoned carts". Your marketing people may care about "average cart size" or "clicks to view price". Your finance people may want to see "average transaction amount". The network and server teams want to know "network bandwidth" and "users per server". Measure whatever the various people in your company care most about. Then start tweaking various "simplifications" into test or beta versions of your site, based on the opinions of the different people. Be neutral in your approach at this time: don't try to pick "the best" one, or the CEO's favorite, or the fastest, or the one that promises the most revenue. Present them all as equally valid, and gather all the data you can.

For experiments that might require more effort to realize (navigation changes that are too disruptive, etc), consider testing various non-functional prototypes using opinion surveys or A-B tests on Mechanical Turk.

After the experiment, crunch the numbers. You should be able to show your server and network teams that the fancy pages use X% more (or less) resources than the simple pages, and that the cost delta is Y$. You should be able to show the English major that his vocabulary is confusing to too many users, slowing them down.

Numbers in hand, you now have facts to back up your decisions. And please keep in mind that your favorite solution might not be the best.

  • I'm not interested in a definition that is applicable to only a specific site. I'm interested in a shared definition to help us define corporate strategy, products, & sites that reflect them. I don't believe a site can be simple if your strategy & products are more complex than necessary.
    – Leslieinva
    Mar 29, 2014 at 18:06
  • I'm saying that simple shouldn't be your primary goal, unless your entire organization has adopted it. Just because you think simplicity should be the most important attribute doesn't mean everyone else agrees with you. Mar 30, 2014 at 2:52
  • Please assume that what I'm talking about is a situation where everyone has agreed that "simplicity" is a key goal. Whether or not simplicity should be a key goal is not up for debate at this point. Sorry if that wasn't clear in my question.
    – Leslieinva
    Mar 30, 2014 at 15:15
  • OK. I would still try to collect metrics, as I suspect that you'll never get everyone to agree on a common definition. For example, I think of simplicity as the minimum amount of time it takes an average novice to complete a task; even though it doesn't define simple, it measures the effects of simplification efforts. But the network guys may think simple is the least bandwidth, or the fewest servers. Some people will think it's the fewest navigation steps. Some think it's the fewest instruction words, or the fewest input fields. Just try to measure the overall activity. Mar 30, 2014 at 18:19
  • I want a defintion applicable to products in general including websites or software, not only for websites or software. It should apeal to product managers who have nothing to do with the web or software, as well as managers of web UX. The idea is to get some agreement on what we mean by "Simple," instead of assuming we all have the same definition when we talk about making things simpler for the customer.
    – Leslieinva
    Apr 2, 2014 at 21:21

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