Tuesday, April 21, 2009

KBall's First Law of Simplicity

There's an asymmetry between simplicity and complexity. Simplicity seems easy, its straightforward to comprehend and interact with, but its devilishly hard to create. Complexity on the other hand, is hard, intimidating, and bogs you down to interact with. However, its incredibly easy to add to any process. Can't decide between feature a and feature b? Build both! That should resolve the problem... and yet... somehow the resulting product is worse than it was before, because it is more complex and harder to understand.

This happens in everyday life as well. Packing stuff up to move has made it abundantly clear to me; stuff just kind of accumulates. Its wayyyy easier for me to buy a new book than to donate an old one (I might want to read it again!), and the same goes for clothing, gadgets, and a variety of other household items. Before you know it, you're bogged down in stuff and doing things like moving or packing up to go to Guatemala for 3 months are downright intimidating.

This leads me to posit a rule which seems to apply to just about anything related to human behavior. KBall's First Law of Simplicity:

Without outside influence, things always get more complex.

Though the text of the law has no mention of simplicity, I named it as I did because I'm much more interested in how to make things simple than how to make them complex, and it has major implications for simplicity. If things naturally tend towards complexity, that means that not only is creating simplicity something that requires effort, but maintaining it is as well!

When structuring your home, or considering a purchase, the idea of maintaining simplicity should be an active part of the decision making process. When making a life decision about what to study, where to live, or how to travel, simplicity should be something that is assigned a value and used when measuring tradeofs.

Similarly, within a business organization, an advocate for simplicity is a crucial piece of the product making process. Such advocation is likely to be difficult: Its an unpopular position to advocate for cutting features, or not building them in the first place. However, without such a balance the first law will assert itself and the product will gradually come to resemble a hydra: multiheaded, difficult to maintain, and intimidating to those crucial new users/customers you are trying to attract.


  1. I don't know that simplicity is the ideal, though. There's a balance, sure, but if getting from point A to point B was always a straight line, I'd have a hard time not looking around for a point C that was more interesting.

    I think there are also two different points of simplicity that can be observed, too. Taking this from a music standpoint (I tend to take everything from a music standpoint), basic music theory gave me a very clear, relatively simple set of tools to work with. Dominant goes to Tonic, Subdominant proceeds dominant. I IV V I. Stay inside the box and you'll be fine. Works for Haydn, works for the Beatles, works for me. Simple

    But now taking Jazz Theory, I'm taking the knowledge that basic theory gave me and breaking down all of the limitations that I had before. There are guidelines, sure, but for every given chord (which are now all seven chords), there exist a huge series of possibilities both harmonically and modeally. Isn't that, too, a sort of simplicity? Where any possibility is a possibility that can be followed?

  2. Hey ABall, thanks for commenting! I definitely agree that the simplest thing isn't always the best thing; in fact it usually isn't, but it does get to the question of balance. My point here is more that unless you work at it, things will inevitably shift towards becoming too complex.

    I like your musical reference a lot, because when I read it, I could change every piece into an example from dancing and have it still make sense. A really interesting perspective to look at this from is the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. In that model, reliance upon rules is a charactistic of novice ability, and dealing with additional levels of ambiguity and eventually really not using rules at all are in evidence at increasing levels of expertise.