Choices Equal Complexity

Choices sound like a great thing. We tend to think that when we have a ton of choices, we have the ability to find things that are more perfect or customized for us. Choices give us a sense of autonomy, independence, and even uniqueness.

Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More, uses recent social science research to show that more choice actually creates more anxiety and stress.

In User Experience Design (UXD) of software, more choices create more confusion, less likelihood of staying on task or even completing a task. Every button, every label, every bit of text adds complexity. Just one new button might not mean much, but it quickly multiplies.

Software companies that aren’t building one-off custom software need to limit choices to that which is necessary and nothing more. Worrying about what people might want to have or what they might want in the future, is a path towards greater complexity.

“Just in case someone wants this” isn’t a good way to create usable software.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.
— Einstein (on simplicity)


…complexity is like a leak in your roof. It starts small. But over time, it does real damage. And once that damage has begun, it’s hard to stop. Best not to let it in in the first place.
— 37 Signals

Simplifying the User Experience

  1. Use keen observation of people in their natural habitats – ethnographic research can refine and focus feature set desires. By looking at what people actually do vs what they might do in your imagination, helps refine and focus the desired feature set.
  2. Discover goals – business software needs to easily and readily support people’s business goals. By doing Step 1, looking at the ethnographic information, patterns of goals across different businesses, will start to emerge. Pay attention to the commonalities and don’t focus so much on the uniquenesses.
  3. When customers ask for new features, dig deeper. What is the underlying problem? Can it be solved in a different way? Is the issue unique to a particular customer, or will 80% of your users feel the same way?

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