We’d all like life to be simpler. But we also don’t want to sacrifice our options and capabilities. Tesler’s law of the conservation of complexity, a rule from design, explains why we can’t have both. Here’s how the law can help us create better products and services by rethinking simplicity.
“What do people mean when they ask for simplicity? They want the simplicity of one-button operation, but with all of their favorite features. It simply is not possible. ” —Donald A. Norman, Living with Complexity
“Why can’t life be simple?”
We’ve all likely asked ourselves that at least once. After all, life is complicated. Every day, we face processes that seem almost infinitely recursive. Each step requires the completion of a different task to make it possible, which in itself requires another task. We confront tools requiring us to memorize reams of knowledge and develop additional skills just to use them. Endeavors that seem like they should be simple, like getting utilities connected in a new home or figuring out the controls for a fridge, end up having numerous perplexing steps.
When we wish for things to be simpler, we usually mean we want products and services to have fewer steps, fewer controls, fewer options, less to learn. But at the same time, we still want all of the same features and capabilities. These two categories of desires are often at odds with each other and distort how we understand the complex.
In Living with Complexity, Donald A. Norman explains that complexity is all in the mind. Our perception of a product or service as simple or complex has its basis in the conceptual model we have of it. Norman writes that “A conceptual model is the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works . . . Conceptual models are extremely important tools for organizing and understanding otherwise complex things.”
For example, on many computers, you can drag and drop a file into a folder. Both the file and the folder often have icons that represent their real-world namesakes. For the user, this process is simple; it provides a clear conceptual model. When people first started using graphical interfaces, real-world terms and icons made it easier to translate what they were doing. But the process only seems simple because of this effective conceptual model. It doesn’t represent what happens on the computer, where files and folders don’t exist. Computers store data wherever is convenient and may split files across multiple locations.
When we want something to be simpler, what we truly need is a better conceptual model of it. Once we know how to use them, complex tools end up making our lives simpler because they provide the precise functionality we want. A computer file is a great conceptual model because it hijacked something people already understood: physical files and folders. It would have been much harder for them to develop a whole new conceptual model reflecting how computers actually store files. What’s important to note is that giving users this simple conceptual model didn’t change how things work behind the scenes.
Removing functionality doesn’t make something simpler, because it removes options. Simple tools have a limited ability to simplify processes. Trying to do something complex with a simple tool is more complex than doing the same thing with a more complex tool.
A useful analogy here is the hand tools used by craftspeople, such as a silversmith’s planishing hammer (a tool used to shape and smooth the surface of metal). Norman highlights that these tools seem simple to the untrained eye. But using them requires great skill and practice. A craftsperson needs to know how to select them from the whole constellation of specialized tools they possess.
In itself, a planishing hammer might seem far, far simpler than, say, a digital photo editing program. Look again, Norman says. We have to compare the photo editing tool with the silversmith’s whole workbench. Both take a lot of time and practice to master. Both consist of many tools that are individually simple. Learning how and when to use them is the complex part.
Norman writes, “Whether something is complicated is in the mind of the beholder. ” Looking at a workbench of tools or a digital photo editing program, a novice sees complexity. A professional sees a range of different tools, each of which is simple to use. They know when to use each to make a process easier. Having fewer options would make their life more complex, not simpler, because they wouldn’t be able to break what they need to do down into individually simple steps. A professional’s experience-honed conceptual model helps them navigate a wide range of tools.
The conservation of complexity
To do difficult things in the simplest way, we need a lot of options.
Complexity is necessary because it gives us the functionality we need. A useful framework for understanding this is Tesler’s law of the conservation of complexity, which states:
The total complexity of a system is a constant. If you make a user’s interaction with a system simpler, the complexity behind the scenes increases.
The law originates from Lawrence Tesler (1945–2020), a computer scientist specializing in human-computer interactions who worked at Xerox, Apple, Amazon, and Yahoo! Tesler was influential in the development of early graphical interfaces, and he was the co-creator of the copy-and-paste functionality.
Complexity is like energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only moved somewhere else. When a product or service becomes simpler for users, engineers and designers have to work harder. Norman writes, “With technology, simplifications at the level of usage invariably result in added complexity of the underlying mechanism. ” For example, the files and folders conceptual model for computer interfaces doesn’t change how files are stored, but by putting in extra work to translate the process into something recognizable, designers make navigating them easier for users.
Whether something looks simple or is simple to use says little about its overall complexity. “What is simple on the surface can be incredibly complex inside: what is simple inside can result in an incredibly complex surface. So from whose point of view do we measure complexity? ”
Out of control
Every piece of functionality requires a control—something that makes something happen. The more complex something is, the more controls it needs—whether they are visible to the user or not. Controls may be directly accessible to a user, as with the home button on an iPhone, or they may be behind the scenes, as with an automated thermostat.
From a user’s standpoint, the simplest products and services are those that are fully automated and do not require any intervention (unless something goes wrong.)
As long as you pay your bills, the water supply to your house is probably fully automated. When you turn on a tap, you don’t need to have requested there to be water in the pipes first. The companies that manage the water supply handle the complexity.
Or, if you stay in an expensive hotel, you might find your room is always as you want it, with your minifridge fully stocked with your favorites and any toiletries you forgot provided. The staff work behind the scenes to make this happen, without you needing to make requests.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have products and services that require users to control every last step.
A professional photographer is likely to use a camera that needs them to manually set every last setting, from white balance to shutter speed. This means the camera itself doesn’t need automation, but the user needs to operate controls for everything, giving them full control over the results. An amateur photographer might use a camera that automatically chooses these settings so all they need to do is point and shoot. In this case, the complexity transfers to the camera’s inner workings.
In the restaurants inside IKEA stores, customers typically perform tasks such as filling up drinks and clearing away dishes themselves. This means less complexity for staff and much lower prices compared to restaurants where staff do these things.
Lessons from the conservation of complexity
The first lesson from Tesler’s law of the conservation of complexity is that how simple something looks is not a reflection of how simple it is to use. Removing controls can mean users need to learn complex sequences to use the same features—similar to how languages with fewer sounds have longer words. One way to conceptualize the movement of complexity is through the notion of trade-offs. If complexity is constant, then there are trade-offs depending on where that complexity is moved.
A very basic example of complexity trade-offs can be found in the history of arithmetic. For centuries, many counting systems all over the world employed tools using stones or beads like a tabula (the Romans) or soroban (the Japanese) to facilitate adding and subtracting numbers. They were easy to use, but not easily portable. Then the Hindu-Arabic system came along (the one we use today) and by virtue of employing columns, and thus not requiring any moving parts, offered a much more portable counting system. However, the portability came with a cost.
Paul Lockhart explains in Arithmetic, “With the Hindu-Arabic system the writing and calculating are inextricably linked. Instead of moving stones or sliding beads, our manipulations become transmutations of the symbols themselves. That means we need to know things. We need to know that one more than 2 is 3, for instance. In other words, the price we pay [for portability] is massive amounts of memorization.” Thus, there is a trade-off. The simpler arithmetic system requires more complexity in terms of the memorization required of the users. We all went through the difficult process of learning mathematical symbols early in life. Although they might seem simple to us now, that’s just because we’re so accustomed to them.
Although perceived simplicity may have greater appeal at first, users are soon frustrated if it means greater operational complexity. Norman writes:
Perceived simplicity is not at all the same as simplicity of usage: operational simplicity. Perceived simplicity decreases with the number of visible controls and displays. Increase the number of visible alternatives and the perceived simplicity drops. The problem is that operational simplicity can be drastically improved by adding more controls and displays. The very things that make something easier to learn and to use can also make it be perceived as more difficult.
Even if it receives a negative reaction before usage, operational simplicity is the more important goal. For example, in a company, having a clearly stated directly responsible person for each project might seem more complex than letting a project be a team effort that falls to whoever is best suited to each part. But in practice, this adds complexity when someone tries to move forward with it or needs to know who should hear feedback about problems.
A second lesson is that things don’t always need to be incredibly simple for users. People have an intuitive sense that complexity has to go somewhere. When using a product or service is too simple, users can feel suspicious or like they’ve been robbed of control. They know that a lot more is going on behind the scenes, they just don’t know what it is. Sometimes we need to preserve a minimum level of complexity so that users feel like an actual participant. According to legend, cake mixes require the addition of a fresh egg because early users found that dried ones felt a bit too lazy and low effort.
An example of desirable minimum complexity is help with homework. For many parents, helping their children with their homework often feels like unnecessary complexity. It is usually subjects and facts they haven’t thought about in years, and they find themselves having to relearn them in order to help their kids. It would be far simpler if the teachers could cover everything in class to a degree that each child needed no additional practice. However, the complexity created by involving parents in the homework process helps make parents more aware of what their children are learning. In addition, they often get insight into areas of both struggle and interest, can identify ways to better connect with their children, and learn where they may want to teach them some broader life skills.
When we seek to make things simpler for other people, we should recognize that there be a point of diminishing negative returns wherein further simplification leads to a worse experience. Simplicity is not an end in itself—other things like speed, usability, and time-saving are. We shouldn’t simplify things from the user standpoint for the sake of it.
If changes don’t make something better for users, we’re just creating unnecessary behind-the-scenes complexity. People want to feel in control, especially when it comes to something important. We want to learn a bit about what’s happening, and an overly simple process teaches us nothing.
A third lesson is that products and services are only as good as what happens when they break. Handling a problem with something that has lots of controls on the user side may be easier for the user. They’re used to being involved in it. If something has been fully automated up until the point where it breaks, users don’t know how to react. The change is jarring, and they may freeze or overreact. Seeing as fully automated things fade into the background, this may be their most salient and memorable interaction with a product or service. If handling a problem is difficult for the user—for example, if there’s a lack of rapid support or instructions available or it’s hard to ascertain what went wrong in the first place—they may come away with a negative overall impression, even if everything worked fine for years beforehand.
A big challenge in the development of self-driving cars is that a driver needs to be able to take over if the car encounters a problem. But if someone hasn’t had to operate the car manually for a while, they may panic or forget what to do. So it’s a good idea to limit how long the car drives itself for. The same is purportedly true for airplane pilots. If the plane does too much of the work, the pilot won’t cope well in an emergency.
A fourth lesson is the importance of thinking about how the level of control you give your customers or users influences your workload. For a graphic designer, asking a client to detail exactly how they want their logo to look makes their work simpler. But it might be hard work for the client, who might not know what they want or may make poor choices. A more experienced designer might ask a client for much less information and instead put the effort into understanding their overall brand and deducing their needs from subtle clues, then figuring out the details themselves. The more autonomy a manager gives their team, the lower their workload, and vice versa.
If we accept that complexity is a constant, we need to always be mindful of who is bearing the burden of that complexity.