3 June 2015

Easy Does IT – The Complexity Conundrum

It’s Bigger on the Inside!
In large organisations there seems to be a painful reality that IT is horribly complicated. There is much discussion as to whether this is an inherent and unavoidable reality or if it is one inflicted on the organisation by a failing IT department.

Well, in my opinion it is neither. There is nothing inevitable about labyrinthine IT solutions, nor do they arise from incompetent technologists. Instead, they exist to solve a complex problem and complex problems require complex solutions. The one true failing of IT is in selling the idea that technology can perform the impossible magic of delivering complexity in a simple way.

I have referred to IT’s love of silver bullet solutions in previous blog posts and I’ve also pointed out that just like the werewolves they are supposed to kill, these silver bullets are mythical in nature. They are mythical, not because we are unable as technologists to keep things simple, but instead because we are trying to fulfill an impossible promise. Somehow, despite failure after failure, the industry seems unwilling to learn this lesson. Attempts are even made to push the complexity down a level and refer to the adaptations required in our silver bullet solutions as “configuration changes”. The lure is attractive as the product now appears to be simplicity personified.

In practice, however, all we have managed to do is to push the complexity back onto the customer who is now required to “programme” the solution to work to their specification. We sell this as “putting control back into the hands of the business” but all we are really doing is subconsciously punishing the user for daring to be complicated in the first place. This is a “not my problem” solution.

Simple is as Simple Does
The answer to keeping things simple is simplicity itself, but simple is not the same thing as easy. The best way to demonstrate this is through example, but for the words I’ll turn to Steve Jobs who summed it up well in his statement:

“Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple, but it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains” – Steve Jobs

It is from this source that my first example of simplification arises. In 1998 legend has it that Steve Jobs, in a moment of frustration, drew a simple grid on a whiteboard (the one at the start of this blog). This act radically reduced the Apple product line to four key products, shelving all other offerings regardless of status or demand. The original number of products is not clear; it is possible that even in 1998 it was not clear, and it was this confusion that led Jobs to make the decision he did. (There were at least a dozen variants of the Macintosh computer alone).

There is a smaller example much closer to home. Whenever I attend Cabinet Office presentations by members of the GDS Team they all bear a striking resemblance to one another. (It’s almost as if they’re working to a style guide!). Each slide contains just one simple sentence, and where the message needs to get more complicated they embed a simple picture, or more often a well-crafted video. It has always struck me that this approach focusses attention on the presenter, simplifies the message and creates engagement in the audience. More recently, whilst looking at mobile alternatives to desktop tools, it also struck me that this simplified approach to presentations removed the dependence on proprietary presentation applications (such as Powerpoint).

I would hazard that Steve Job’s example, although presented as being wise and well thought out, is less about evidence and more about gut. He made it simple because he liked simple and just knew it was right. He made the IT simple by making the business simple. Similarly, I’m sure there is robust evidence based logic involved in the GDS style guide, or could it be that the decision maker just knew that a decision to be simple in approach had a ripple effect on the simplicity of the implementation.

In both cases, the decision makers did something that some seem to find radical; they made a decision, and the decision they made was to give the user what they needed, not what they were asking for (there is a difference). They gave them something that they hadn’t even realised they needed and as a result they made them happy.

Paint it Black
Henry Ford did this too. He is credited with many quotes relating to user (or customer) needs, but the one I am going to repeat here is this:

“A customer can have a car painted any colour he wants as long as it’s black.” - Henry Ford

Henry Ford is not being rude here, nor is he ignoring the customer. Far from it. What he is doing is simplifying his offering in order to simplify the solution. It was this type of gut decision making that allowed the first Ford motor cars to roll of a production line in volume and at affordable prices giving the customer very much what they needed at the time.

So, to simplify the solution you have to simplify the offering, and to do that you need to make gut decisions. You will of course do all that good stuff like user research, prototyping and you will even run trials, but at the end of the day simplification will come from the brave decision to create the product or offering you believe in. You will offer this product to the customer, and trust in the fact that they will love it because you knew what you were doing.

You do know what you’re doing… don’t you?

The Enterprising Architect

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