Making the Complicated Simple

Making the Complicated Simple

Apple makes the complicated simple. Way back when, however, Steve Jobs didn’t act alone. He surrounded himself with masters – people with exemplary skills in connecting humans to technology in ways so intuitive, those of us now using computers all day, every day don’t even think about the complexity of what’s actually happening.

We are masters at making the simple complicated, but what does it take to make the complicated simple. As a young engineer at General Electric I was told form follows function. True enough. Then, I created my own philosophy, good design has no more or fewer parts than required.

Think about that for a moment and then apply it to writing and speaking, no more or less words to express your opinion or share your thoughts.

Simple words communicate best and pictures are worth a thousand words. In my early career I worked with Jef Raskin, human–computer interface expert best known for conceiving and starting the Macintosh project at Apple Computer in the late 1970s. We met at PARC – the Palo Alto Research Center, which is owned by Xerox – at the beginning of the personal computer revolution. We were attending a session about a new Xerox electric typewriter when we were asked if anyone was interested in seeing one of their new concepts. A group of us were lead off to a room with a desk, a monitor, a keyboard, a large plastic box and a small hand-held device on a cord. I was invited to sit down and operate this new product.

The screen had ICONs on it, the early graphic user interfaces (GUIs) from the Xerox Star printer. I was asked to type a note. Jef pointed to the icon that looked like a printed page and they had to show me how to operate the three-button box attached to a cord – now called a mouse. I fumbled to align it to the ICON and pressed the correct button. A Word Star page appeared. I typed a quick note, then was told to print it. Again, there was an ICON of a printer. I clicked it and the plastic box on my left lit up to produce the printed page.

Steve Woznick also was there along with a handful of other people from GE, Raychem and elsewhere. We had just witnessed the beginning of the personal computer revolution… and it was birthed by XEROX, who made the complicated simple but had no idea what they had just created. They had, however, just celebrated with gusto a new electronic typewriter in the auditorium next door.

Obviously, there were a few wrong turns on the way. Steve Jobs wanted to build his $10,000 Lisa, which failed; Jef took the idea and created the Macintosh. Jobs and Raskin clashed, but the result was to do what Xerox could not; comprehend the business value and make computers approachable, easy-to-use and eventually affordable for everyone.

Jef and I came to that moment in time from similar philosophical backgrounds – keep it simple stupid. We also shared a belief in the value of researching and using operator intuition, combined with simple words and pictures to tell stories and convey ideas; a philosophy to sell concepts and design products that are easy to use.

The lessons we learned throughout different careers were:

  • Stay open and allow your mind to expand the purpose and application of an idea
  • Know your audience and, where possible, canvass them prior to presenting your ideas to understand their needs, wants, level of understanding and bias
  • Use simple words and as few as possible, relying on bullet points to ensure key attributes are clear and focused
  • Finally, whenever possible use imagery to enable users to visualize your concept

Believe me, it’s actually as simple as that.

For more stories and discussion about bringing your idea to the market, contact Rob at

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