The Rise And Fall Of Complexity: Apps

[As promised, here's the first in the series about the tech industry's drive to reduce complexity.]

Remember the magic number? It's the one thing from Psych 101 that you should recall, since it pertains to memory. The brain has an upper limit on the number of chunks of new data it can stuff into working memory at one time. The number is around seven, plus or minus one or two depending on the person and the task. It's the limitation that makes the old game Simon challenging, and that bedevils us when we try to remember a phone number that someone just told us.

The magic number is one way in which the human brain tries to trim down complexity. Another more recent discovery is the brain's fuzzy boundary between literal and metaphorical statements. Attach a candidate's resume to a heavy clipboard instead of a light one, and the interviewer is more likely to treat the candidate seriously, because the resume seems somehow weightier.

Countless other examples exist where the brain takes shortcuts, filters information, and otherwise simplifies the constant, complex stream of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions that would otherwise turn into a "blooming, buzzing confusion." We're not stupid creatures, but the machine that grants us powerful mental capabilities also puts limits on them.

The Death Star Would Be Great If I Could Figure Out What All These Buttons Do
Flash forward from the Serengeti a few hundred thousand years ago to today, and we see that the very capable technologies that we've built to augment our very capable brains have run into these limitations. Nowhere is that more clear than, in the software industry, the move away from the super-mega-app of ultimate power and awesomeness (SMAUPA). 

The most famous example of the SMAUPA is Microsoft Word. After years and years of accreting features, the UI of Word (as well as other Office products) looked like the starship control panels as commonly depicted in TV and movies, banks upon banks of mysterious flashing lights and unlabeled buttons. (Apparently, in the future, we will break the light speed barrier, but usability is still beyond us.) In the same fashion as our heroes flipping switches at random in the hopes that one of them will open the pod bay doors, Microsoft Word users have been clicking around menus and dialogs in a frustrating search for the toggle that shuts off the auto-correct feature.

In response, Microsoft put a significant investment into improving the UI for the 2007 version of Microsoft Office. Debates over the success of this effort usually center around complexity: Did the new UI go far enough in weeding out complexity?

What's not debatable is Microsoft's decision to take UX seriously in Office's road map. While Microsoft's campaign may be the most famous UX revamp in recent years, other companies are pursuing similar goals. Unfortunately, we don't hear often enough about these other examples of fighting the good usability fight.

We Can Rebuild Him. Make Him Faster, Stronger.
SAP, for example, has been improving the UX of its very complex applications. (One might say, infamously complex.) UX has been an executive-level priority since 2003, when Hasso Plattner realized how important it was

I’ve become convinced that many innovative ideas fail to be commercially successful because we haven’t understood the role of design. Design isn’t decor...Only by combining design and technology will we create innovative products and services that can succeed.

Plattner, by the way, is the founder of Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Clearly, he's more than sold on UX, so it should be no surprise that SAP has made UX a high priority. Starting in 2003, SAP created some high-profile UX teams to begin the long process of revamping not only SAP's products, but also product development. Today, the numerous UX professionals at SAP are an integral part of the development process, and UX is a genuine release criterion (instead of, as traditional in this industry, a cursory and irrelevant checklist item at the end of a release cycle).

You Get a Series Four De-atomizer And I Get A Little Midgy Cricket?
The biggest boost to application simplification, however, didn't come from these sorts of UX overhauls, as important as they are. Our collective expectations of how we access application functionalities changed with the smartphone. Tablet devices like the iPad have reinforced this new mindset. On these devices, we're perfectly happy to have access to only a fraction of what the application might do.

For example, Rally Software has an app that's emblematic of what kind of functionality to put on a mobile device. On whatever piece of hardware I'm carrying in my pocket, or under my arm, I can quickly check the overall status of projects, enter an issue that someone just told me as we were in the kitchen microwaving our lunches, and dig a little deeper into the existing issue that someone else just warned me is going to get escalated. That's only a fraction of what you might do with Rally's ALM tools, but it's definitely the sort of things you actually want to do on a regular basis, whether you're at your desk or somewhere else.

That's the basic principle behind nearly all the apps that provide a limited front end to a vastly more capable back end. Not only do lots and lots of companies now provide apps for their own systems, but there's a healthy market of third-party developers building complementary or competing apps. Notice that we don't call them "mini-apps," or "applets," as if they were the small, weak progeny of more robust applications.

We almost had this app revolution when mash-ups and widgets started to gain traction. Mash-ups had the odds stacked against them. They required some degree of patience and technical skill to build, and there wasn't an easy way to distribute them. The hurdle that widgets faced was the operating system. Widgets just begged the question, "If I'm going to turn on my laptop, or launch the browser, why not use the full app?"

Mobile platforms forced people to be economical in app design, at the same moment when simplification became not only a development priority, but a business imperative, in the technology industry. The SMAUPA may never completely disappear, but its niche in the software ecosystem is shrinking every day. Our tired brains are thankful for that.