It is 7:30 and I am just about to step into the car and go to the office. Suddenly, the alarm of the house goes off. So I turn off the apparently false fire alarm. So far so good …

But here’s the problem. Somehow our alarm system needs to be told that there was a false alarm. Failing to do so, it will go off again after a minute or so. Turning it off was simple enough, but telling it this was a false alarm proved very challenging…

This is an alarm system that is pretty similar to what we have at home.

It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to do it, while consulting the manual…

Another simple example

Here is another example of making something simple very complex:

I don’t know about you, but I usually just flip the channels and fiddle with the volume. Now I know most televisions are capable of a lot more, but it seems strange that I need a manual describing what every button does…

Where it goes wrong

The problem is not that people don’t want to make things simple. To be honest, most of the buttons on that remote control are pretty simple. You press them, they do something. There are just too many of them.

The alarm system has the same problem, and another. The buttons change functionality. So in one situation a button does one thing, but in another situation it does something else. That confuses the user immensely.

The products in both examples are, at some level, simple. At some point the remote control people will have said ‘every button should simply have 1 function’. Awesome, great rule. Where they went wrong is that they cramped the TV with a billion features and gave every feature a simple button.

The design team at the alarm business did a great job in not adding even more buttons. They just didn’t see how confusing it is for a user if a button with a certain icon is suddenly used for something completely different.

How to make it simple

These companies have given in to adding more features in the same way they did before. And I see a lot of companies doing that. They are asked to add a feature, and they naturally add something to the system, usually in the form of a button or a function.

If you want to make things simple, ask a different question: “What can we remove?”

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