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Simplicity In A World of Complexity


According to the physicist Feynman, seemingly simple things in life such as the air, the water, the sand, the sea all are in fact complicated and embed the complexity of the world. In a similar vein, the field of human-technology-interaction is complex as well due to being multidimensional and multidisciplinary which requires a highly diverse team to design and develop related hardware and software. Given the different background levels of technology users, ranging from smartphone to PCs, we cannot talk of an average technology user as each person might possess a different socio-cultural background. Therefore, when it comes to designing for simplicity, much discussion took place regarding the usability issues given a variety of user background. In general. according to the principles of simplicity, the fewer the number of functions or options exist in a user interface (UI), the less burdensome it would be for users to mentally process that information. Yet, as Maeda asserts, designing for simplicity and simplicity are not the same issues and reducing the number of interactive elements during a design process might eventually lead to reductionism.

The term ‘reductionism’ usually has a derogatory association and implies the oversimplification of a complex phenomenon. When it comes to design, there are two poles of reductionism. While greedy reductionism is described as trying to discover too much in a short period of time, careful reductionism refers to the process of clarification which elements to reduce. While reducing the presentation of functions and interactive touch-points for an UI design by ignoring the principles of a cognitive-semiotic approach based on an understanding of users’ cognition an example for the latter would be incorporating complex systems into a seemingly simplistic design solution in the case of books- Ticket Books- designed with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in order to be readable by ticket scanners in subways. So, there should be a balance between the operation of design and the functionality offered by a design by keeping simplicity at a maximum level.


Reductionism does not necessarily equate simplicity. While simplicity might be conceptualized as being more related to aesthetics as exemplified in the simple beauty of snowflakes in nature, reductionism still entails a powerful process as it requires the viewers to mentally construct absent elements in visual representations while removing some parts from the design. On the other hand, the power of simplicity has been mostly a topic studied in the field of cognitive science from the following perspectives:

The problem of induction related to the philosophical debate of the achievement of truth

  • Compatibility of the infinite number of patterns with a finite number of data sets similar to the curves passing through finite points similar to the programming logic of different algorithms to achieve the same programming outcome
  • Repetition of stimuli so that through constant exposure patterns can be recognized
  • Semantics and categorizations so that related cognitive categories can be derived leading to the classification of phenomena

Given the multi-disciplinarity of cognitive sciences, it acts as a useful vehicle for acting as an interface between the mind and senses and the world external to the human mind so that simplicity could eventually also benefit from this field. According to research studies, in order to discover patterns, high-level cognitive thinking such as association, reflection or evaluation are necessary to build categories of meaning. Several studies suggested the interrelation among decision-making, convergent thinking, and the ability to develop new solutions based on scarce options or resources. To give a specific example, individuals exposed to scarcity, abundance, and control within a study were assigned to a task which involved an image of a candle, box of matches, and a container of tacks. These individuals were supposed to solve the problem of attaching the candle to the wall through the use of the provided materials, ensuring that the candle would burn properly (in the correct direction) without dripping wax on the floor or table. According to the results, scarcity was also related to a mindset as those who were confronted with a scarcity condition demonstrated higher levels of creativity in comparison to the others subject to conditions of abundance (where individuals were provided with a narrative making them feel surrounded by conditions of a vast amount of resources) and control (where individuals were not provided with a narrative to prime them for any specific conditions).


Individuals make sense of their surroundings by means of their mental schemas based on a combination of perceived sensory information shaped by memories and emotions rather than simply replicating the external physical world. From the perspective of information processing, this provides ease of interpretation. Also, technologies that capitalize on design simplicity by means of prototypes or sketches try to convey specific ideas of values and emotional qualities. In the absence of these material manifestations, ideas would be open to an unlimited amount of interpretations by remaining on an abstract level. Prototypes provide a means of easier cognitive grasp in comparison to printing with highly complex visual features so that users are afforded with the ability to make use of their cognitive processes related to imagination and appreciation to understand the object in detail. In addition to this, other factors such as the repetition of stimuli might also increase the relative preference for complexity. Yet, this case of repeating the stimuli would not apply to complex meaning structures and relationships among individuals. To give a specific example, the frequency of expose one’s husband’s face in a 20- year marriage would not provide an explanation for the probability of liking or disliking one’s husband. So, this aspect of stimuli repetition could be generalized for simpler settings in explaining the increase of effective responses in short-exposure time intervals given fairly unknown stimuli.

A cognitive approach to design for simplicity consists of the following multiple steps:

1. Determination of critical design aspects: The process of isolating specific elements within the design syntax (e.g. those related to the design presentation such as form, size, color), referred to as the design (code or signifying element), sets the foundation for the analysis process.

2. Discovery of different levels of critical design features: During an examination of these features on both a material and immaterial level (e.g: immaterial qualities displayed by the smartphone for the perceiver, such as values, ideologies, etc..), a variety of useful design elements can be explored for further analysis.

3. Consideration of the qualitative representation: In user studies, qualitative (and even quantitative) data are seen as an important construction of how design is experienced by an individual. The qualitative representation entails an interpretation of related context and the interplay between simplicity and complexity.

4. Approval of the mental representation: As a result of ongoing negotiations within the perception-apperception relationship, the mental representation includes the interrelationships and impressions of designs.


By isolating concrete design and contextual properties, such a cognitive approach is useful for examining the dynamics of simplicity and complexity in the field of human-technology interaction (HTI). In relation to the design object’s material and immaterial intentions along with the mental representation of the encountered design, simplicity and complexity can be analyzed. Based on the theory and science of human understanding, such a perspective can also be utilized in the conventional sense in relation to the study of user experience of technological artifacts. Once the phenomenon or object which entails some signs or symbols conveying the message is studied a mental representation of the encounter with this phenomenon or object is interpreted within the related interaction context. This can further be utilized as a basis for investigating the cognition when individuals interact with designs.

The cognitive approach to the design in the field of HTI puts emphasis on the following aspects:

  • The design or code referring to the designer’s mental processes and intention along with the qualitative description of that particular user experience
  • A user’s communication of individual mental representation

A physicalized manifestation of design intention (such as size, color, etc..)- even in the cyberspace- conveys a point of contact between the user and design interpretation, which is ready to be perceived (intentionally or unintentionally) by means of various senses. The mental representation of the design through perceiving and apperceiving the design embed cognitive, aesthetic, reflective, practical, and functional properties. While the material object entails particular qualities (i.e., sensory, e.g., how things feel or look), values (e.g., locally or ethically produced), and beliefs (i.e., brand-based or religious) the immaterial objects embed these values, beliefs, or ideologies through choices related to colors, images or language.

Given the complex nature of simplicity, the relationship between the elements and their qualities should be taken carefully into account when it comes to designing for technology. As the Prophet, Mohammad said simplicity is part of faith. So, whether it is about our ways of living or the tools we design, we should make simplicity part of our daily lives in order to cope better within the complexities of our digital age.

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Ayse Kok
Ayse completed her masters and doctorate degrees at both University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK). She participated in various projects in partnership with international organizations such as UN, NATO, and the EU. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Bosphorus University in her home town Turkey. Furthermore, she is the editor of several international journals, including those for Springer, Wiley and Elsevier Science. She attended various international conferences as a speaker and published over 100 articles in both peer-reviewed journals and academic books. Having published 3 books in the field of technology & policy, Ayse is a member of the IEEE Communications Society, member of the IEEE Technical Committee on Security & Privacy, member of the IEEE IoT Community and member of the IEEE Cybersecurity Community. She also acts as a policy analyst for Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research. Currently, she lives with her family in Silicon Valley where she worked as a researcher for companies like Facebook and Google.


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