MIT Media Lab Professor: Tech should be simple like Apple iPod, not bloated like Microsoft Windows

Dr. John Maeda, an associate professor of design and computation at the M.I.T. Media Lab and an award-winning graphic designer, has spent eight months putting forward his own one-word vision of the future: simplicity,” Jessie Scanlon reports for The New York Times.

“There is too much needless complexity in the world, he argues. Technology, which was supposed to make our lives easier, has taken a wrong turn. In 20 years we’ve gone from the simplicity of MacPaint to Photoshop. While the first fostered a creative explosion, the second gave birth to an industry of how-to books and classes. And such complexity is commonplace, Dr. Maeda says,” Scanlon reports.

“The Windows operating system is a case in point. According to Gary McGraw, chief technology officer at the software consultant Cigital, the 2000 version of Windows had 20 million lines of source code. XP, released in 2001, had 40 million – a doubling in less than two years. Critics of such complexity have offered myriad solutions. Writing about the “threshold of frustration,” Bill Buxton, a former chief scientist at the graphics software maker Alias who now runs a consulting firm, called for engineers to focus less on technology and more on who, what, when, where, why – that is, how it’s being used,” Scanlon reports.

After the first year of The Simplicity Design Workshop, some tenets of simplicity have emerged:
1. Heed cultural patterns. The iPod, for instance, succeeded not just because of its sleek form, but because, in conjunction with iTunes, it solved so many of the problems of buying and storing music.
2. Be transparent. People like to have a mental model of how things work.
3. Edit. Simplicity hinges as much on cutting nonessential features as on adding helpful ones, the Newton MessagePad and the Palm Pilot being prime examples.
4. Prototype. Push beyond proof-of-technology demos and build prototypes that people can interact with.



  1. erk –

    what’d you say? heh…
    most won’t. never have. never will. a few may.
    voices of clarity and simplicity are almost always overlooked or intentionally resisted by this dominant culture. complexity and difficulty are misrepresented signs of intelligence and competence. it’s like a cultural egotism.
    bummer. sorry.

  2. speaking of Newton, does anyone know why [url=][/url] takes me to the apple home page? How long has it done that? And, when, if ever, is Apple gonna come out with a Newton running some sort of OS X for handhelds? Most likely just run Palm OS, but wouldn’t that just be the cats pajamas?

    Honestly, Apple created that segment, pulled out, and now desparately needs to come back and take over. Chics would dig a perforated aluminum handheld. I need one, I don’t have the looks.

  3. donnie –
    re: people in teh real world don’t give a crap about how many lines of code something has… they only care if it works.

    i would amend this to say: they only care if it works “well”. the irony is that even 40 million lines of code doesn’t guarantee that something works well. look at windows. elegance and simplicity is when you can make something that works well with as little code as necessary. it’s something worth pursuing regardless of whether people in the “real world” give a crap about it or not because usually the elegant stuff works better just because the author took the time to make it that way in the first place.

  4. I totally agree. Bloatware has taken over especially in the windoze world. Apple is one of the few companies who really “get” it. The trend in Apple has even been toward MORE simplicity. I think M$ wants to do this (witness the M$ word talking paperclip), they are just inept. What M$ DOES excel in is tainted business practices used to make more money off their abused user base, NOT in delivering simple easy to use products.

  5. I think John Maeda is completely right. But from my opinion as a developer of web-applications there only exists ONE rule in development: “the amount of frustration taken be humans from a software is a constant value – the more the developer takes the less the enduser has to take.”

    So this means we need…

    1) More developers beeing capable of suffering frustration (on improving the product)
    2) The company paying these developers and kinda compensating them with money for their frustrating work

    Any comments on this one?

    Helge (from europe/germany)

  6. MacPaint and Photoshop. Gee, somethin� for everyone. Fer cryin’ out loud, is this a bad thing? I would think most people prefer choices.

    The Mad Professor here does have one point, however. Code should be “simply” elegant. My prof was merciless when it came to “extraneous lines of code”. He was a weird guy, but he was right that bloat was bad. Generally, bloat means sloppy programming and difficult programming.

  7. I agree with the professor that some programs need to be stripped down (ie. Word on Windows), but disagree with his example of MacPaint vs Photoshop. Photoshop is a relatively simple program to use compared to the power it offers.
    Some people seem to think that they should be able to pick up any program straight away and use it – that all programs should be “intuitive”. But everything has a learning curve, you have to learn an interface. That’s what Photoshop has over Word – Photoshop is consistent (and therefore, intuitive once you’ve learned the basics), whereas word has a myriad of contradictions scattered throughout its interface.
    Almost everything that feels intuitive was once learned, other than maybe very basic animal instincts.

  8. Right, I have used Photoshop since version 3 about 10 years ago. When a program is that powerful, it is always going to be difficult for a casual user, but easy to use if you use it often.

    The analogy would be putting your grandma who drives a Ford Escort into a 1000 horsepower race car. She is fine with the Escort, and it serves a valid function, but she can’t just step into the race car and expect to do well.

  9. I beat you… i’m using Photoshop 2.5.1 on Mac OS X 10.3.3… it still fulfills all my needs ” width=”19″ height=”19″ alt=”wink” style=”border:0;” />

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