"Too complicated for people to understand" - or the limits of simplicity

25 July 2008

I came across an interesting quote that Government’s Working Tax credit scheme is “too complicated for people to understand”. In this case, without knowing the details of the scheme, it would seem fair to deduce that either the underlying processes, or the systems surrounding it, or both, are at fault.

I’ve heard similar comments about complex ideas in the past. There have been calls for complicated fraud trials to be heard by a judge and two specialists rather than the usual jury picked from twelve members of the public. The reason given for the planned change is that the jury members cannot follow the complex reasoning behind complex fraud. This may be true; it may take a long time to explain such complexities and people on jury service don’t want the spend months or even years of their life in court.

This leads me to think that the law of diminishing returns applies as the problem becomes highly complex.  For example, Einstein is quoted as saying that he could never satisfactorily explain “infinity” in non-mathematical terms; however, few of us require such an explanation in our daily work.  

More recently, Stephen Wiles ’ six-year attempt to solve the centuries-old theorem postulated by Fermat nearly ended in failure when he found a serious flaw in his proof. He was asked to explain in non-technical terms what the problem was. Wiles responded that, even to a mathematician who was an expert in number theory, would take several months to explain the problem. Clearly, there would be little point in trying to explain this to a layperson.

Most of us who specialise in one subject or another will use two vocabularies; one for our fellow specialists and one for a general audience. If you don’t take care in tailoring your message, at best you will be inefficient; at worst you will lose them completely.

In systems engineering terms, get to know your stakeholders by writing a profile for each role that will be interacting with the system. For each profile, include a statement on the role’s technical abilities; while it would be safe to assume that the average person doesn’t have the intellectual capability of Einstein or Wiles, it would NOT be safe to assume that the average person has the skill (or time) to read detailed instructions to work complex and un-intuitive interfaces.

So, strive for the simplicity, in terms in systems and processes, but without losing clarity. If you can’t make it simple enough for your stakeholders to understand without losing meaning, then you are attempting to solve the wrong problem.

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