Mastering Complexity Is Deeply Satisfying : Designing for Delight, Part II


The quest for simplicity seems to be the new black. Everybody wants to do it and it seems to be the answer to every bad interface design, bad product design, bad business model and bad marketing strategy problem. Except, that it’s not.

We need complexity.


Because Life is complex. And as Don Norman rightly points out, our tools must match life’s complexity.

What we are really seeking when we ask for simplicity from our products is actually understanding and delight. We don’t like things that are too simple. Think about it. In the kind of music, food, games and social interactions we desire, we want to be excited, surprised and enthralled. We want to feel alive and simplicity does not make us feel alive.

If it’s too simple, the music becomes uninteresting, the food becomes bland, the social interaction becomes dull. If it’s too complicated however, it’s confusing & frustrating at best.

What we really want to see are things in the intermediate space between too simple and overtly complex. We want to be in a state of flow, alternating between the thrill of trying something new & figuring out how it works and the satisfaction of mastering it & building competence.

What makes finding this middle an interesting challenge for the entrepreneur or the designer is that ‘middle‘ is a moving target. Middle is a function of skill, and skill is a function of expertise, practice and learning.

In the beginning we like things that are simple. Simple sweet red wines, simple folk songs & nursery rhymes, simple games & toys with simple colors and simple art. Then as we master those simple concepts, we start to crave complexity in higher degrees. We move from the novice state to an expert state and the sweet spot where ‘middle’ lies changes.

Complexity is necessary for creating delightful experiences.


We as entrepreneurs, makers & designers need to think of the products we build like games. Like a game, a product needs to have varied levels of complexity and this complexity needs to be revealed slowly, as the user becomes ready for it. The product must be attractive to someone who’s never played the game before, and to someone who’s played a previous generation game but not this one and also to someone who is an expert at the game. We need to design an experience that people with a varying degree of skill sets can pick up and be equally delighted by.

And like in a game, we need to think of our customers as players and track their progress & complexity preference throughout the lifecycle of their interaction with our products so that we can serve them the appropriate level of challenges as they get ready for them. The interface should become more exciting and complex & be peppered with more things to figure out as the player gets better at using the product. That’s the only way to keep the game (read: product) interesting and deliver an engaging experience.

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 8.04.00 PM

You want the complexity to stay just a tiny bit above your player’s ability, so that the player is always in a state of flow. If it’s too easy they’ll give up because it’s boring, and if it’s too hard they’ll get frustrated and quit. This sweet spot in the middle is where the experience becomes truly engaging. You need things to be enough of a challenge to stay engaged and keep things exciting.

Here’s what a learning curve looks like when the user is in flow and fully engaged in the product:

 goodcurve1 goodcurve2 goodcurve3

When there’s no flow, everything the user sees looks new and quite incomprehensible to him. This is what the learning curve looks like when the user is not in the state of flow (this is also how our current education system is designed, as opposed to encouraging students to learn in a state of flow) :


It takes two people to craft a delightful experience. You the designer have to make it cohesive and understandable so that the user is inspired to take the time to understand your product and get the most out of it. As creators of this experience, we need to ask ourselves: if it’s going to take time for someone to learn to master this, how can I make it so that the process is more engaging? How can I make it so that they’re able to accomplish something all the time as they go? When we do this successfully, even as the players take their first steps, they don’t know much but they’re still doing something & accomplishing something. And with time they accomplish more and more and feel a sense of mastery over the product.

Eventually, something really interesting happens. Not only are they willing to learn more about your product, they’re anxious to learn more so that they can accomplish more.

That’s a good design trick. And that’s where the elements of play and gamification have a role in experience design.

Simplicity and complexity both have their place in our world. When it comes to experience design, it’s hard to create a truly engaging experience without having the right amount of complexity.

Complexity can be understandable, workable and even enjoyable. And simple things can exist in arbitrary states, so as a collection they can be complicated. Reducing the number of choices doesn’t always make the experience simpler. Sometimes, to be able to explore, we need to see all the options that are available to us in context.

Complexity feeds off of our natural urge to problem solve, to make sense of the world around us. The right amount of complexity, delivered at the right stages allows us to master the product or skill. Mastering something release dopamine in our brains and thus we begin to crave more of that feeling of mastery. That’s when we as designers need to up the levels of complexity & the challenge our products deliver, but just enough to make it possible for the player to remain in the state of flow, and do what they do best: engage in the world around them and try to master it.

When done right, designing complexity carefully into the experience leads to a perpetual state of flow, delight and long term engagement.

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