Beauty and Simplicity: Look Who’s Talking!

Here’s a challenging quotation for you! Who once referred to a particularly well-designed object as “a great example of (a) focus of mine — beautiful products that are simple and intuitive to use”?

It might have been Steve Jobs of Apple, eh? After all, Mr. Jobs is globally renowned for assuming a leading role in designing beautiful, simple, and intuitive break-through products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Apple’s iPhone, in particular, revolutionized the mobile phone industry by utilizing just a single button on its sleek face.

Or perhaps it might have been architect Philip Johnson, who created the world famous “Glass House” that still resides (and is open to the public) in southwestern Connecticut. Or perhaps it was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who collaborated with Johnson to design the stark glass and steel Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan.

Even Leonardo da Vinci once (reportedly) said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” But none of these men actually spoke the above quotation; in reality, it was Google co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Larry Page who expressed it last week. Considering the immense state of complexity of Google’s search algorithms and AdSense revenue program, it certainly appeared to represent a surprising change in corporate strategy.

The Threat of Complexity

Complexity itself, by its very presence, tends to hinder our abilities to diagnose and address challenges. The federal government, for instance, was reportedly so flummoxed by the sheer complexity of AIG’s financial derivatives that they decided to employ the very creators of these “financial weapons of mass destruction” to help unwind those transactions and rebalance the firm’s portfolio during the dreary post-crash period. Likewise, entire categories of consumer products — such as the advanced stereophonic equipment of yesteryear — have faded into irrelevance because their own customers struggled to understand their functions.

Google’s original home page, which originally sported little more than a search box under the company name, has grown significantly more complex over the years. It now features corporate information links in the lower left corner, a “Change background” link in the lower right corner, sign-in and settings functions in the upper right corner, and a series of ancillary service links in the upper left corner.

One of those ancillary service links actually states “more,” and by clicking on it, a visitor is confronted with a pull-down menu with twelve additional service links. And at the bottom of that menu, a thirteenth link then states “even more,” which in turns leads to over three dozen additional service links. Whew … now that is quite a complicated collection of links!

In addition, if you visit Google’s home page with a computer that possesses a “live” microphone, you can click on the tiny microphone icon within the search box and speak your search terms with your human voice. The voice translation service isn’t perfect, but it’s an interesting — albeit incredibly complex — technology to watch “in action.”

Beauty And Simplicity

None of these functions, however, necessarily strikes you as being representational of beauty, simplicity, or intuitiveness, eh? In reality, they all do leave much to be desired when assessed in those terms. Mr. Page, though, was actually referring to Google’s new “Plus” service when he referred to these traits in terms of his personal “focus.”

The Plus service is not yet available to the general public. Nevertheless, some industry analysts have praised it for providing a simple and intuitive alternative to Facebook users. Others, however, have lambasted it as an overly simplistic knock-off of Facebook, albeit with certain noteworthy enhancements.

Interestingly, Mr. Page’s comments were offered during an earnings release that highlighted Google’s recent financial success. Apparently, Google’s stylistic innovations are positively influencing their “bottom line” fiscal health as well.

Simplicity vs. Privacy

Many industry analysts are now focusing less on the simplicity of the Plus service than on its privacy innovations. When Google designed the service, it took aim at public concerns regarding Facebook’s policies by implementing a collection of default settings that implicitly establish a high level of privacy. Facebook itself, in contrast, has often been criticized for implementing default settings that ignore or avoid privacy considerations.

Despite its shortcomings, the Plus program appears to have created a collection of privacy settings that are — if not exactly beautiful — at least simple and intuitive to use. After previously unsuccessful forays into the social media business through services such as Orkut, Wave, and Buzz, Google finally appears to have introduced a viable social media service.

If it does succeed with this endeavor, Google will pull off a noteworthy “pivot” away from complexity and towards a standard of simplicity more commonly associated with people from da Vinci to Jobs. They apparently all believe that simplicity itself can serve as a “killer design application” that can ensure the popularity and success of numerous products from skyscrapers to cell phones.