Different people will draw different interpretations of events.
My old pal Erik “Transit Geek” Hare (the nick is purely a NARN creation, feel free not to use it in regular conversation) has – if you read his blog, Barataria – invested a lot in the notion that world is on the brink of a huge realignment of some sort of another, and has since I’ve known him. That’s going on fifteen years now.
He thinks the recent splatter at Facebook is a sign of this. I, naturally, take a more prosaic view that, as is happens, ties in with my little corner of the IT world.
The design team at Facebook thought it had a winning strategy to defeat Twitter – offer users everything that Twitter has, and more. What they didn’t realize is that Twitter’s base were fans for one key reason – it was less. The resulting firestorm has Facebook scrambling to regroup. This may seem like an isolated situation, a simple business decision gone wrong, but it appears to be something more. Observed from the perspective of general trends in culture and the arts, minimalism appears to be the fashion and thought of the day.
Well, if you constrain your perspective to that of “currently-vogue-y social networking websites”, that sure seems to be true.
The implications extend far beyond one software product.deskMinimalism is, at its heart, an ethic of stripping everything down to its essential elements. It’s different from utilitarianism in that in minimalism the structure and essence speak for themselves, creating a style that goes beyond the simple use of an object. There is a philosophy at the heart of minimalism, a plan and ethos that is not unadorned, but the ornamentation grows naturally from the essence of what the thing at hand really is. In short, form closely follows function.
Except that if you look beyond that, throughout society, you’ll find that minimalism in and of itself only goes so far.
Microsoft Word, the big-screen TV, the IPhone, video games with seemingly-complex user interfaces with buttons and little flippy gizmos, American Idol (with its byzantine voting and judging arrangments and its patina of excess), cars loaded with IPods and Satellite Terminals and packed with hybrid engines whose engine compartments look like Auxiliary Equipment rooms in nuclear submarines, Deal or No Deal (with its permuted plot and masses of models) and Google – the very definition of “feature creep” – are all mind-warpingly popular.
What do they have in common? Not much! Some look complex from the outside; others, like Google, mask immense complexity in a benign wrapper with just one input field and two buttons.
What they – or at least, the parts of “they” that are successful – have in common is “usability”. Can a person sit down and, without any “training” and with a minimum of muss and fuss, use the thing, first successfully, then productively, and finally with enough pleasure to make someone want to buy another one?
Minimalism alone isn’t it. Google is a page with an input blank and a couple of buttons. Pretty minimal, right?
WordPerfect for DOS was also simple; you booted it up and looked at a blue screen with no controls and few cues.
One of them is utterly self-explanatory; try Google once or twice, and one pretty well has it down. On the other hand, WordPerfect – once the lingua franca of world processors, for those of you who remember the early ’90’s – spawned an immense industry for people to train people how to use the thing. It died when Microsoft Word – anything but a “minimalist” program – figured out how to make visual complexity relatively usable.
Software that has the minimalist ethic is not much different in its approach. By keeping things simple and allowing the user to put themselves and their needs into the program, a programmer can create something that fills a fairly narrow niche that has a lot of room to grow. Flexibility and customization are usually key points…The basic ideas are heavily modernist in origin – form follows function.
Except that in the cases of products that succeed in the market, form and function both follow usability. In the cases of each of the products I listed above, from the Prius to the IPhone, designers and the various flavors of “usability” people – human factors engineers, usability analysts, designers and the rest – manage to tame and shape both form and function to make the product work with people rather than against them. So whether the product is, on its face, complex (the IPhone, the video game) or simple (Google) or familiar (the “user interface” for the car is pretty well-know everywhere in the world), the common thread isn’t minimalism, or even the system’s form or function themselves.
It’s this;when the product was being desgned, did the designers ask themselves “what will it take to make this thing work with users, rather than against them?”
Erik’s piece delves into minimalist music as well. That’s worth another article.