When ”delightful complexity” is relevant – and when it’s not

man facing big complicated diagram on a whiteboard
When I (and others) argue that computer systems in the workplace should be less confusing, and easier to use, the notion of “delightful complexity” often comes up – perhaps as a question from the audience. For example, that happened last week at the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio.

The idea is that we actually enjoy mastering complicated things. You feel good when you’ve taken on a tough challenge – and solved it. Like a 10,000-pieces puzzle, a very hard piano piece, or cooking a very intricate dish out of the classic French cuisine. And by the way, housewives liked the cake mix more when they had to add an egg. So perhaps you really should make systems, apps and services harder to use, and make them a real challenge?

But there are strong limitations to “delightful complexity” that are important to understand, if we are to apply it to people’s workplaces.

The most important is that delightful complexity only applies to what people feel is the core of their work, to things that are closely related to their professional goals – and not to what they perceive as administrative chores.

In other words: a physicist, say, might gladly put in a lot of effort to master a super complicated electron microscope, regardless of a primitive or right down ugly interface–and be proud of it. But she will crash and burn when using the perhaps less ugly time reporting or travel expense system.

When we create applications that are not closely related to the workers’ goals and their professional image of themselves – like most administrative work – the sytems or services have to be super-Apple-simple.

Otherwise, they will find their own SUNC-powered workarounds. Or suffer a cognitive load that might eventually lead to health problems like stress.

Don Norman put it this way: products can be complex, but excessive complexity creates confusion.

Oh, and by the way, that story about delightful complexity in form adding an egg to a cake mix is not really true.

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