What is Simplicity?


Simplicity can be defined as:

  • The absence of complication while addressing the underlying issue on hand.
  • The property of a domain which requires very little information to be exhaustively described.
  • A means to achieve maximum effect with minimum means.

Here are some other interesting definitions for simplicity:

  • “The greatest ideas are the simplest.” - William Golding
  • "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." - Albert Einstein
  • "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." - Leonardo da Vinci
  • "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful" - Lawsofsimplicity.com

Do not confuse simplicity with triviality. Nor does simplicity imply poor quality.  On the contrary making complex things simpler probably helps improve quality.

Characteristics of Simplicity

Let us understand the nature of simplicity by way of examples in our daily lives.

Simplicity is hard and it takes time to master

A professor of philosophy wrote a book on philosophy in 40 pages. 
His students were surprised.  Philosophy explained in only a mere 40 pages? They had never seen anything like that.

When asked about it, the professor exclaimed - "Oh!  If I had time I would have written it in only 20 pages!"

Simplicity can be achieved through the reduction of complexity

Warren Buffet was once asked why he never owned a private yacht just like his multi-billionaire peers did. 
To this, he simply answered that he didn't want the additional burden of maintaining a beast, for which he had little use anyway. 

Why complicate when it doesn't have to be?

Simplicity is all about believing in the KISS dictum – “Keeping it Simple and Succinct

Ricardo Semler1, the owner of Semco, was once asked by his staff to approve a budget to procure more office filing cabinets.  He wondered what could be so important that needed to be filed away into the ever growing collection of office cabinets.   One weekend he ordered his entire staff to clear everything out of the filing cabinets and discard documents that were either unimportant or those that they weren't sure. The staff did as told and were never afraid of discarding one too many.  At the end of the exercise, they were left with an abundance of filing cabinets that finally were auctioned off.

Such was his focus on simplicity that he also implemented a "one-page-only" rule for any document that required his attention. 

Simplicity gets more attention

Ever tried reading a lengthy Terms and Conditions for a website or a software?   Recently I saw one neatly presented in two sections:

  1. What you need to know in plain English
  2. The full legal document

Yes, simplicity at work here again!

Simplicity requires one to work smart

Ray Kroc2 franchised McDonald's throughout the world.  There is nothing innovative about the food it serves, but Ray's obsessive adherence to simple beliefs - quality, cleanliness and uniformity - transformed a little known hamburger joint to a global behemoth.

Simplicity recognizes that you either pay now or pay much more later

Software requirements specifications can sometimes be very dry.  In our projects, team members had assumed certain things instead of clarifying it with the customer right away. With a little time investment they could have clarified the intent. Instead they continued working blindly just to meet the deadline.  When it was time for validation, they discovered that their little "assumption" wasn't valid anymore.  It took a lot of time, effort and money to track and fix the defect.

We end up paying more in terms of project delays, code re-writes, cost and time overruns, not to speak of a de-moralized team.

As you might expect, achieving simplicity is time consuming and hard!  Most of the time we take the easy route out and complicate things that don't really need to be.


Can anybody practice simplicity?

Certainly!  Initially it may take a lot of hard work and patience, but with practice one can definitely do better.  In a workplace environment, this mindset must start at the top.  Executives have to ingrain this concept of simplicity to the core - both in practice and in theory

In developing our own products, this is a question we constantly ask ourselves:

  • Does it really have to be this complex? 
  • How can we simplify and aid in the understanding of the subject?

We believe (for us), achieving simplicity is a work-in-progress.

If I may, here is a parting thought:

"It takes a true expert to simplify (anything), for any fool can complicate!"

Ouch! that hurts, isn't it?   I hope this spurs you to focus on simplifying whatever you do.


Tell us what you think.  Share with us your experiences.


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