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Want simplicity? Look for complexity
23/07/18

Most of us crave simplicity. Others like life's challenges, even if it's putting ourselves to the test in the local 'escape room', or emerging triumphantly after wrestling with a long-awaited DIY task. As inherently complex human beings, we've had no option but to work hard to get where we are, from our days as hunter gatherers to our new days as WhatsApper Instagramers. But back to simplicity - we try to do less - or better at fewer things - by getting back to basics.  

Aiming for simplicity is easy. We've all tried using our phones less, uncluttering (uncarbing) our diets, booking our kids into one less class. But getting simple, and more importantly staying simple, is, paradoxically, driven by complexity. If you think about most of the things that work first time, every time, and have a ridiculously low level of failure, almost all are extremely clever with high levels of intelligence built in. Take the plane I'm sitting in right now - around 400,000 parts flying smoothly at 38,000 feet. Not the kind of thing that you could knock up in a spare half hour at the weekend. But we just take it for granted - it works. The same could be said for your phone, laptop, car, washing machine, even kettle. You don't need a robot vacuum cleaner to be complicated. You're there already.  

In Geoffrey West's book 'Scale - The universal laws of life and death in organisms, cities and companies' he draws parallels between the 'fractal' networks of trees and the human cardiovascular system. Both have a tendency to fill space - whether that's to the end of your pinky, or to the tip of the leaf - and to divide so orderly and repeatedly to turn pulsatile flow (from the heart) to non-pulsatile (ie smooth) in the smallest blood vessels in your tissues. This fractal - self-similar - behaviour where a geometric pattern repeats itself, appearing independent of scale, is again highly complex. But the result is so simple that we barely notice it. Which is a shame because when was the last time that you really looked at everyday detail? It’s truly beautiful.  

When it comes to software (and hardware), the overarching temptation is to add, add, add a little more, then add again. More complexity, especially if we're considering the number of independent functions a piece of technology allows us to perform. This 'function bloat' is all too common. And it's easy to see how it happens - focus groups with end-users can create a long-list of requirements, ranging from "that button would work better over there" to "can you make it work on Mars". Then comes the tricky job of working through the list to rank what users really need (...want?). What makes the MVP, and what makes the next major / interim release? And that's particularly hard when all of us want to create products that are valued - loved - by their followers.  

At MIME we like to think that we apply the same principle. It's only by getting complicated - or rather thinking intelligently - that we make products that are simple to use and work first time, every time. Just like harnessing artificial intelligence to help first responders in medical emergencies.  

More is less*.  

(*the notable exception to this rule is Brexit. Brexit follows no rules whatsoever) 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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