Friday, March 30, 2012

Simplicity, Complexity and Completeness: telling the whole story, succinctly


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I have a reputation amongst my business partners and friends for writing long emails. And they like to let me know about it, usually through some fun jesting over Twitter.

Recently, a topic came up on Twitter about simplicity being a trend in design. And I agreed that complexity leads to confusion and failure.

But my friend was quick to point out my penchant for long emails, essentially equating length with complexity. I responded that my emails are not necessarily complex, but complete.

This got me thinking: Are length and complexity the same?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I love simplicity. Just look at the logo designs I find inspiring. But simplicity at the cost of completeness is dangerous.

Let's hear what Albert Einstein has to say on simplicity:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
I remember having my high school physics teacher explain to us Einstein's theory of general relativity. The concepts involved in this theory are not simple. Otherwise it wouldn't have taken 2 weeks for us to work through the explanation and exercises. But the theory is as simple as it can be.

Einstein understood that complexity is dangerous to communication and understanding. But neither should one sacrifice a complete theory to the idol of simplicity.

Simplicity does not have to mean incomplete.

Now for a more business-minded example:
Imagine your client writes you a lengthy email on how you messed up their order. How would you respond: A simplistic, "Don't worry, we're on it," or maybe a 1500 word essay on how you're not at fault?

Do either of these options satisfy your client?

Probably not. Sure, they want the situation remedied—they want action. And while the simplistic answer might feel good for a moment, it's incomplete—eventually they want more details. When? How? What exactly are you going to do? But they certainly don't need a 14 point essay either.

So what's the right answer?

Be as succinct (simple) as possible to tell a complete story.

Give details...when necessary. But certainly don't add superfluous ones either. Get to the point—but make sure you make the whole point.




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