Keep it simple, stupid, is stupid

Sit through a class on leadership, design, management, or engineering and you’ll hear about the KISS principle: Keep it Simple, Stupid.  Originally coined by the US Navy in the 1960s, the phrase has stuck with our national supply of seminar speakers and course instructors. The principle says “being simple” is good and always virtuous. The truth is this phrase is one-sided and gets wielded by people to bludgeon good ideas into something worse. “Being simple” can also mean someone’s dumb.

There’s an elevator in my office building with no indicator light on the first floor, but it has a level indicator. Every other floor has an indicator light, but no indicator for which floor the lift is on. I’m convinced half of the elevator’s trips in a day are wasted. Someone on the third or fourth floor pushes the button, hears it whir up, but has no idea where it is. It’s already slow, so they just take the stairs down. The result is an elevator moving for no purpose because there was a lack of information. But hey, it’s simple. What could be more simple than pushing a button and waiting for a door to open?

I’ve been sneaking an hour or two here and there to play Nintendo’s excellent “Breath of the Wild” Legend of Zelda game. I remember playing Ocarina of Time on N64 and being scared by the zombies that would gorge on your brain. The old game was a masterpiece for the time. You walked forward and generally just walked through an obvious path.

Breath of the Wild isn’t like that. It’s an immersive world. You can take dozens of possible paths at any juncture and walk every which direction. It is much more complex, and it is much better off because of it. There are more buttons, options, and control combinations. The camera can be controlled by a separate joystick and you walk with the other. On N64, you walked with a joystick and alternated between a few buttons most all of the time. Now the buttons have doubled. But, it’s not simple anymore, so surely it must be terrible.

Unlike large tech companies which can either choose to hide or not offer support, many of my clients are close enough to their customers that I hear about everything that goes wrong. Someone the other day tried a purchase but failed. Turns out, they work in a bank and no third party transaction services can be run on their network. Someone else wanted to know why Dropbox doesn’t have a feature they think it should have. Yet another person emailed me within seconds of not knowing that maybe if you want to see the recent comments on a post, you click “comments”. A few minutes later they called to say they found it and wanted to know if I could make it “simpler”. I don’t know how to simplify something better than “Login, click comments”.

Simplicity is a cycle on a progressive path toward complexity. What is simple for you is not for someone else, and what is simple for the customer is not for the business and vice versa. But just because you have decided not to read, watch, or otherwise think or try to learn something is no reason to demand “simplicity!” Every year I have a conversation with people when someone can’t figure out how to “become a member”. “You click ‘Join Now’”, I say. And then a fight erupts over why it doesn’t say “Become a Member”. “Because ‘Join Now’ is shorter”, I say. Then we change it until someone asks the next year asks why it doesn’t say “Join Now” and the process repeats. This has been ongoing for three years. The number of sign-ups isn’t better or worse regardless of what it says. 

The number one thing I hear when I ask potential clients, “What are you looking for from your website?” Is always “Well, it should be simple.” What I was really after was, “Do you need to rely on your site to make all of your income? Does the site need to comply with any regulations in your industry? Should your website be a source of leads to a sales rep?” But I never hear that until I ask further. But if I pause, there’s always a breath and then, “…sometimes I go to websites and it’s just so busy. There’s too much!” 

I don’t say it but I often wonder, “Have you ever been to” If this line of simplification were applied to Amazon all they’d sell is what can fit in a single navigation menu: books, movies, and [insert three other things that person likes]. If this were applied to, everyone would delete the news after each day and replace it with 3-4 stories every day or so. I have sat in many conversations where I’ve had to explain that deleting all of the stuff off your website after it’s “old” is not ideal. Like running around collecting all the old newspapers after they’re “old”. Or painting a bunch of artwork and throwing them away after each new one because “It would be simpler”.

A better example of simplicity comes from surveys. If you’ve ever designed a survey and inserted a bunch of “fill in the blank” or “comment box” questions, you’ve been frustrated by the lack of response. That’s because you made it simple for you. If, instead, you thought of the common responses people might have or asked yes/no questions, you’ll get many many more responses. Because now despite more complex for you to design, you’ve made it faster for survey-takers. And you made it faster for you to tabulate precise results.

The next time you say, “This should be simpler”, ask yourself if you’re saying that because you’re trying to avoid extra work on your part or if adding more could make something better.

Want to know when stuff like this is published?
Sign up for my email list.

Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

Leave a Comment