“Complexity is good; it is confusion that is bad.”

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman lands another zinger that stops me in my tracks and makes totally reconsider how I approach human-centered design. While “complex” and “complicated” are two words I would normally use interchangeably, but they really are different. Something can be complex, with many components, without being difficult to use or understand. And that’s the difference.

Norman has written a book and given multiple lectures on this very topic, so I decided to dive in on this more, starting with this video on his book Living with Complexity.

We often hear about how things need to be “simple,” but Normon reminds us that what people really mean is they want something understandable, workable. Simple things can still be very confusing and inefficient.

“Complexity is necessary because life is complex, and the tools we build have to match life.” — Don Norman

A modern smartphone is extremely complex. When you think about it, it does the work a radio, flashlight, compass, clock, tape recorder, personal computer, calculator, camera, road map — and countless others items with its seemingly infinite potential for functions.

Yet is very simple to use.

That brings us to Tesler’s Law. The law argues, essentially, that when you design something that is easier for someone to use — while you’ve reduced the complexity to the person, you’ve increased the complexity behind the scenes. Norman uses the example of the automatic transition — far easier than manual shift, but more complex underneath.

My challenge this week is to see and recognize how things that seem “simple” are often quite complex, and that’s good. But complex doesn’t have to be complicated. Humans enjoy, expect, and appreciate things complex things — they want them robust and multi-featured. What they don’t want is for those things to be needlessly difficult.

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