Complexity In Design: A Social Consideration.

Complexity can be defined as the amount of intellectual stress placed on a user or player when using a system and or interface. That is to say, they need to be able to be aware of and interpret numerous variables, the fewer variables the lower the perceived complexity.

It is widely believed that good design is minimalist or simplified design. That the best practice is to distillate and order elements in a way so that the target audiences can register, absorb and utilize the design with maximum efficiency and to a large degree this holds true, since we never actually remove necessary complexity but rather it just gets handed off to automation which gets hidden behind a “curtain”. However, paradoxically it has been found that given certain contexts users expect and hold a high value against complexity.

One of these instances is due to the perceived value of a product, complexity is sometimes equated with sophistication and therefore value and is thus a symbol of status, that is to say, the more features a product has the higher the perceived value of the product. A simpler product may very well be designed to make the end user’s life easier but minimizing the product in effect is less competitively placed in the market. Siemens released a smart washing machine that could detect the amount of laundry, the kind of fabric, and the soil level. There were only two program settings, and the machine would take care of the rest. This means the washer’s control panel could be very simple, but in fact, Siemens designed it to have more controls than their other non-automated washers as they did not want to understate the sophistication of their product. This leads me onto my next point of mastery.

Complexity is valued when mastery of a skill have social or cultural value, typically due to the fact that they require discipline and dedication to acquire and master, traits which are admired in people, as well as tradition. There are several instances where this exists predominantly in sports, gaming and craft. Take for example the art of Samurai sword making; it requires several craftsmen months of labour to produce a single sword the smelting process in itself taking 3 or more days to produce the steel which then may or may not be discarded if the carbon content (judged by eye) is not high enough.The steel is then passed on to forgers, polishers, hilt and scabbard makers all which take several weeks to complete. These swords are highly sought after and prized amongst collectors in comparison to the mass produced Chinese ones.

In recent years the rise of the gaming personality has become increasingly ubiquitous. There are platforms dedicated to streaming videos of players engaged in virtual combat and multi million dollar tournaments with prize money going over the £8 000 000 mark, that’s as much as some professional golf and tennis games prize money. Although it’s popularity has waned in recent years, one such game is StarCraft, a science fiction real-time strategy game. Top-level StarCraft requires as many as three hundred actions per minute to develop economies based on harvesting 2 different kinds of mineral deposits, in order to fund combative territorial expansion whilst defending against other players who are doing the same. It even came to the attention of cognitive science researchers, who previously used chess to study similar mental phenomenon this is due to the fact that because StarCraft was so popular and it generated a record of the actions taken during the game, called replay files. SkillsCraft was the largest study of expert human performance that utilised these files sourced from players round the globe. Their primary research question was: to what extent does the importance (i.e. predictive power) of variables change across levels of skill?

Lastly for consideration is that of ritualistic practices and process. By definition, a ritual is a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order to invoke a change of state, be it physical, spiritual or mental.

Rituals developed out of superstitious practices where our primitive ancestors believed that by performing certain rites they could influence change. These can be seen in B.F. Skinners 1947 study on a group of pigeons where the birds were fed at random intervals. What was found was that three-quarters of the birds developed ritualistic practices. One pigeon, in pursuit of food, believed that by turning around in the cage twice or three times between being fed, but not just in any direction; the bird learned to turn anticlockwise and appeared to believe that this would mean it being fed. Our ancestors have done similar things for millennia with rites becoming more complex and ingrained in our cultural and personal identities.

In experience design, ritual primes the user’s conscious state, creating a sense of anticipation and expectation for when the final message or product is revealed. A great example of this is the packaging for apple products. Every detail of every step of unboxing an apple product has been considered. Even before you open it, the weight and finish of the box, As you open it the zen like layout gives the impression of solemnity and reverence to the product inside, fetishizing it through the narrative of the ritual, binding the product to the user. Who now almost feels that it is imbued with magical power that will earn him the respect of his peers.

There are also instances where complexity is artificially increased through unnecessary abstraction, withholding or obfuscation of knowledge in order to create an elite and maintain power dynamic. I’m pretty sure we’ve all come across those who drop buzzwords and terms many of them out of context or used incorrectly. As a designer I’ve come across a lot of this particularly in the realm of digital marketing but it’s prevalent in a lot of industries. Nicholas Nassim Taleb(Author of Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness) has proposed on numerous occasions that the stock markets well more accurately the prediction of their behaviour, are artificially complex likening it to the Catholic church during the middle ages where all ceremonies were performed in latin and books were the purveyance of the aristocracy and clergy who were the only ones literate, and wealthy enough to purchase them, given that they were hand crafted on vellum (a membrane made from calfskin). Dark Patterns is a site that is dedicated to naming and shaming sites and businesses that utilize complexity for the purposes misdirection in U.X. design to force a specific reaction from a user opposed to allowing them an actual choice.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but it seems that complexity is indeed linked to social interaction and perception which I believe that is something that we should consider when designing experiences and systems. This is not to say we should not make anything more complicated than it should be natural but rather just not “hide it behind a curtain” of automation.


When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper

Minimizing Complexity In User Interfaces By Tyler Tate

Living with Complexity by Donald A. Norman

Why We Should Design Some Things to Be Difficult to Use by Donald A. Norman

Revisionist History Season 1, Episode 3: The Big Man Can’t Shoot by Malcolm Gladwell

The Nine Elements of Ritual by Jonathan Cook

Ritual Marketing Helps To Build Brand by Jonathan Cook

Introducing Ritual Design-meaning Purpose and Behavior change by Kursat Ozenc

Exploring design thinking by Dr.Stefanie Di Russo

How Packaging Gives Apple’s Buyers a Sensory Experience That Reinforces Brand

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation by Chris Nodder

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