Simple and usable: An interview with Giles Colborne

Audio (mp3: 4.08MB, 23:49)

Published: 1 October 2010

Gerry Gaffney interviews Giles Colborne, author of “Simple and Usable: web, mobile and interaction design”. Giles talks about simplicity as a winning strategy, about experts and mainstreamers, and about how to turn customers into advocates.

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

My guest today has been working in user-centred design for almost 20 years. He’s a former president of the UK Usability Professionals’ Association and is still actively involved with the UPA.

I’ve asked him to join me today to talk about this new book. It’s called Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile and Interaction Design.

Giles Colborne, welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Giles Colborne:

Thanks, Gerry, it’s great to be here.


People have always been paying lip service to the concept of keeping things simple, but typically, at least in the context of IT, things have become increasingly complex. Why is simplicity so hard?


Well, I think there are lots of pitfalls on the way to simplicity, and I’ve gathered a lot of stories and examples in the book to illustrate how other people have overcome them.

But for me there are two things that stand out. Firstly, you often hear people saying “Make it simple”, but never for who? Often what’s simple to engineer or create is difficult to use. So in the book I give the example of a bicycle. You can simplify the engineering of a bicycle by getting rid of the gears and the brakes, and even the front wheel. And then you have a unicycle. And it’s a much simpler design until you actually try to sit on it and pedal it somewhere.

So I’m really only interested in one type of simplicity and that’s the user’s experience of simplicity. And I think when you narrow simplicity down to that, and you stop worrying about whether the complexity exists for the engineer or for the people who are delivering the back end, and say we’re going to begin with that, a lot of things fall into place.

I think there’s another important reason that simplicity turns out very often to be complicated, and that is, I wonder if we just don’t allow ourselves enough time to get to grips with problems and solutions. When you think about the process that you go through in approaching any design problem at any project, at the outset it always seems simple, and the brief you get is fairly short. And then you start to immerse yourself in the detail of the problem, and suddenly everything seems much more complicated, and there are many more factors to take into account. And I think it’s often quite satisfying to say, oh well look how much complexity I’ve had to deal with, and look how many special examples there are that we’ve got to take into account. And I wonder if people… it’s no wonder that people tend to stop there. I find if you keep on going that you’ll find that there’s one main lever that you have to pull on the design, one thing that kind of underpins it all, and everything else falls into place. And I think giving ourselves that extra time to go beyond understanding the complexity of the problem, to understanding where the simple solution is, is one of the keys to achieving simpler designs.


One thing that sometimes occurs to me is that even though we claim to espouse simplicity, we’re still very much, we’re magpie-like, we’re very much driven by the flashy gadgets and so on. There’s a quote from your book, which says: “Complex products are fascinating. Back in 2006, technology columnist David Pogue dubbed this the ‘Sport Utility Principle:’ People like to surround themselves with unnecessary power.” I know there has been interesting research done in regard to people’s purchasing habits of simple versus highly functional if you like, or highly featured devices, and we still have a tendency to buy those highly featured devices. So surely there is in fact a logic in making complex devices.


Well I think what’s fascinating is that people’s attitudes to the devices that they’ve purchased quickly change. I think the paper you’re referring to is the 2006 paper from the Harvard Business Review, by Rust, Thompson and Hamilton. I take that apart in the book to some extent, because they found that yes, when people make purchase choices they start out and they’re bedazzled by features. Even though they acknowledge that piling on the features is going to hurt usability. So people are quite savvy about that, but they’re also, I think, over optimistic about their ability to cope with complexity. If you stop there, you’d say point proven, complexity is what we need. But of course things don’t stop there. People go ahead and they buy the products. And what Rust and his colleagues found was that once people get to try those complex products, then they’re less likely to choose them. And the ones who do go ahead and say well I’m going to choose it anyway end up being less satisfied with their choice, less confident that they’ve made the right choice.

And I think that’s the significant result, really for three reasons.

Firstly, we’ve moved from a world where people learn about products through advertising. So these days, online reviews, word-of-mouth, these things matter much, much more. In other words, you’re taking someone else’s experience of a product rather than an advertiser’s claims about a product. So there’s a strong case for simple products that turn customers into advocates.

Secondly, I think for software designers it’s important because our products are increasingly offered for free trial before purchase. So again, users don’t need to worry about reading through a list of features and judging capability, they’ll have a go. And so again, if they find that a product is overwhelming or that they never really needed that feature that seemed so important in the first place, well that influences their purchase decision, and again their advocacy.

And finally, my guess is that many people listening to this podcast will be working on products and services that aren’t actually sold. They’re just used. So, things like an airline booking website. Nobody spends time evaluating which airline booking site has the most features. People just use them. And if they work, they come back.

So I think in this era, that it’s the user’s experience that matters, which I guess goes back to my first point, that when I think about simplicity I’m really concerned with what’s the user’s experience for simplicity.


I know you talk about the iPad in the book, and you talk about the fact that some of the pundits had said look at this forthcoming device, it’s a piece of crap because it doesn’t have x, y and z. So Apple have been pretty gutsy if you like in bringing out products that are under-featured to the cognoscenti in one way. Nintendo comes to mind with the Nintendo Wii. You know, coming out with a console that had less of everything and which nevertheless has proven to be a market leader for a number of years.


You make a really good point. I think from the outside you tend to think that those companies are different or special. And reading around some of the interviews with Nintendo staff around the launch of the Wii, you get a sense that actually there was some concern among staff that, wait a minute, shouldn’t we by trying to push the envelope with graphics and pile on the features. And that in the end the vision won out. It’s not easy to choose simplicity.

But certainly, in those cases you’ve mentioned, it’s a winning strategy.


And of course both of those companies have been, not pun intended here, been game-changers in that they’ve shifted the entire industry largely by going for something simple.

Let’s get into nitty-gritty a little bit. In the book, which incidentally I thoroughly recommend to listeners, because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think when it first came out, which was one of those ground breaking books. I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend it.

But in any case, you define three types of users – experts, willing adopters and mainstreamers. Tell us about them, and tell us about for which of those user groups we should design.


I think the difference between experts and mainstreamers is one of the most important things to understand when your’re designing an interface. And once you start looking for it you see it everywhere.

Experts are the people who are happy to explore a product or a service and really push the limits of what it can do. And I find when I get a new piece of technology I’m definitely in the expert camp. I’ll play with features and settings to see what happens. I’m not afraid to break it. I’ll go online and look to see if there are any hacks out there. And experts put that level of effort into understanding a product. You know, if you give them a mobile phone they’re the ones who want to hack into the file system to see what’s going on there.

Mainstreamers are people who just want to pick up a product and get a job done. And I guess, you know, mainstreamers are the vast majority of users. I think for all those of working in interface design, we are surrounded in every direction by people who spend so much time working with computers and technology that we forget that there are people out there who don’t spend every waking hour looking at a mobile phone or a laptop computer. And for them, it’s an incident in their life. They just want to pick it up and get a job done.

I think the key thing is control. Everybody seeks control in their lives but experts and mainstreamers are really after different types of control. Experts want control over how things are done. They want control over the detail of process, and they want fine control over outcomes.

Mainstreamers are people who are looking to just get a job done, a kind of a good enough control. And I think it’s often very hard for experts to believe that anybody would be satisfied with good enough control.

When you start looking for that dichotomy you see it everywhere. I’m working with an e-commerce client at the moment. He says it’s really hard to understand why the same person can shop for two different products in my store in two completely different ways. The answers is that they may be an expert in electronics and a mainstreamer when it comes to home furnishing. Understanding when somebody has flipped into expert mode and when somebody has flipped into mainstream mode is terribly important for understanding the user experience that they’re going to desire.

And then of course there’s the question of the willing adopters. And I think that group are people who are comfortable with the mainstream experience they’ve got but would like to push it a little further.

You asked about for whom we should design. Well, if you don’t design for mainstreamers, they’re just going to be overwhelmed, and turn off. I think if you’re designing any kind of mass-market product, any kind of product that goes outside of the specialist niche expert audience, then you have to begin with getting the user experience right for mainstreamers. And you can start to add on the few additional tweaks for willing adopters, and the fine control for experts only so long as it doesn’t disrupt that mainstreamer experience. If you want mass-market adoption, being with the mainstreamers, concentrate on them.


In the book you spend a considerable amount of time describing the three strategies for achieving simplicity, and these are…




OK. In the book [laughs], you describe four strategies for achieving simplicity – removing, organising, hiding and displacing. Which is indeed four things.

Can you tell us about each of those in turn?


That insight came from an exercise that I used to do with interviewees for jobs, and we ran this for a number of years, where we would ask them to come back for their second interview and show us how they would redesign an everyday item. We generally gave them a DVD remote control because it was something we knew everybody would have access to, and make it simpler. And that’s all the information we gave them. We were interested in the sorts of strategies they came up with and the sorts of ways they justified them.

Over the years I noticed that the strategies they came up with really fell into those four groups. So people would remove – they would try get rid of buttons and features that they thought were unnecessary. Or they’d organise the stuff that was already on the DVD remote control and turn it into a better laid out, better prioritised interface. Or they’d hide some of the stuff that the considered to be advanced or unusual, generally behind a little hatch. Sometimes they’d hide it by having a touch screen, and having the most important features on the top and the less-used features elsewhere, on a deeper menu. And displacing, where they would basically boil the remote control down to just a few buttons and then put all of the complexity of managing what those buttons did onto the TV screen, so you’d use the remote control to navigate through a system of menus.

And we ran that not just with DVD remote controls, but we’d give the exercise to people for mobile devices, online banks, all sorts of things, and the same strategies keep coming up.


When did you realise that you had a generalisable model, if you like?


We started really discussing it in debriefs for the interviews, and we’d start saying, that one came up with that design again, that one came up with the design that we saw done better another time, this one’s got a really interesting take on the onscreen menu problem. And so we really, those patterns started to emerge and we realised that there were things that came up no matter what the design challenge we gave people.


That’s when you were conducting these interviews for cxpartners in the UK?


That’s right. For me the strategies that are there are interesting for different reasons. The problem of organising stuff, I think, is the thing that a lot of people working in usability find themselves doing day-to-day. It’s a pretty low-cost strategy when you think about how can I make this website work better, to reorganise what’s already there. And so it’s one I think a lot of people will be familiar with. And I think it’s very effective and I love it.

Removing – getting the consensus to strip away what’s not necessary – is a real challenge, because it just feels counterintuitive very often. And I was very lucky to have some really interesting people to interview who’d worked in product design, designing services, designing websites and mobile apps, who were able to share their experience of doing that and of punching through that challenge.

The strategy of hiding is also fascinating because again I think very often we’ll hide stuff in user interfaces, but then there’s that temptation to say I want people to find it as well. So you hide it behind a door with a flashing light on it. And the benefits you get from taking something away from users’ attention are undermined slightly. And I’ve got some nice examples in there of how people have hidden stuff very completely, so it can be found just at the last minute.

And the section for me which is most intriguing, I think, is displacing. In the book I talk about displacing stuff between different devices, like I’ve already mentioned, between the DVD remote control and the TV screen, that’s a convenient place to put flexible data. But it’s also worth remembering that the user is part of that system too. And understanding what tasks to leave them with is as important as understanding what software tools will help them and support them. Sometimes if you take the wrong task away from the user you make the experience feel unsatisfying and complex.

So I think each of the strategies has some interesting and surprising outcomes.


When I was reading the book I was reminded… I had a chat to Alan Cooper on this same podcast some time back, and he was talking about the same topic as your book is about really, but I hadn’t thought of it in those terms at the time. I’m just looking at the quote now, he said “What I need is a computer that doesn’t make me feel bad, and a cell phone that doesn’t make me feel stupid. And what that means is the technologist, the high tech companies can no longer rely on new whiz bang technology.” And he talks about choosing phones based on their lack of features.

So I guess if we’ve got an über-geek like Alan, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being called that, harking after and requesting and demanding simplicity there must be a market there.


I think that’s very true. I was talking to a product strategist just the other day about simplicity, and one of the objectives they had selected for their product was to make people feel clever. And I said you know, feeling clever is an expert objective. Experts want to feel like I’m the cleverest person on the planet. Mainstreamers want to avoid feeling stupid.

And if you head down the path of trying to make your users feel clever you may just overwhelm them with stuff. I think all the things that Alan Cooper has written in the past in books like The Inmates are Running the Asylum is tremendously perceptive and valuable in reminding people about how to go about that.


One thing that impressed me about the book was that it is in itself nice an simple. For example, instead of using the term “cognitive load” which is kind of the UX-speak I guess, you just call it “load”. And I really liked some of those little touches. But it reads very easily, and I always think it must take a hell of a long time to write a book that’s that simple. How long did it take you to get it down to what it is now, which is something under 200 pages?


I’ll tell you, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I think all the time I was writing the book I had a little demon on one shoulder saying, whispering in my ear, well, that’s not very simple, is it? [Laughter.]

And so I may have ended up with a book of 200 pages but I probably wrote ten times that much in order to get there. I was very lucky that my publisher, New Riders, was really flexible about the format, and I really tried to choose a format that would lend itself to bite-sized chunks, so that the book could be kind of consumed simply. Also I realised that there was a lot of philosophising that you can do about simplicity, and I love that stuff, and I realised that I really had to put the brakes on that, and that what was going to be valuable to people in a lot of cases were the stories and examples of the people that I’d spoken to, and how they dealt with it in the real world.

So, that approach of taking bite-sized chunks and of using stories rather than coming up with a very technical book helped to make it simple and easy to digest. And I think that was a key goal for me. I didn’t want to write a complex book about simplicity, that seemed rather ridiculous.


The photographs in the book… I seem to recall you wandering around with a camera around your neck. Did you take most of the photos in the book yourself?


I took in the end very few photos, because the more photos I took the more I discovered I’m not a great photographer. [Laughter.]

But choosing photos for the book and trying to come up with images, and the book is a very visual book, was often as hard as writing and honing the words, trying to come up with images that… I wanted each page to be kind of anchored by an image, and for the book to be something where if you picked it up in a few months or years time you could flick back and maybe spot an image and be reminded of something that you’d read and so it would be easy to recall as well as easy to read.


Well Giles I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I heartily recommend it to anyone working in UX. I think it will be useful for you, for your manager, for your team members, in both understanding the rationale for simple products and defining methods and techniques for achieving that simplicity.

So, once again, thanks for joining me on the User Experience podcast.


Gerry, it’s been a pleasure and it’s always great to talk to you.

Published: October 2010