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Tesler’s law: the conservation of complexity

It cannot be created or destroyed, only moved somewhere else.

“Complexity is like energy. It cannot be created or destroyed, only moved somewhere else. When a product or service becomes simpler for users, engineers and designers have to work harder.”

In Why Life Can’t Be Simpler, Farnam Street brilliantly explains Tesler’s Law as it relates to what we’ve all experienced about digital product design.

Simpler isn’t always better

The first lesson from Tesler’s law of the conservation of complexity is that how simple something looks is not a reflection of how simple it is to use.

“People have an intuitive sense that complexity has to go somewhere. When using a product or service is too simple, users can feel suspicious or like they’ve been robbed of control.”

Complex actions require complex tools. Rather than trying to simplify the tools — stripping away or hiding functionality — what is needed is a better conceptual modal that makes the user experience feel simpler.

The conservation of complexity

Donald A. Norman explains:

“With technology, simplifications at the level of usage invariably result in added complexity of the underlying mechanism… What is simple on the surface can be incredibly complex inside: what is simple inside can result in an incredibly complex surface. So from whose point of view do we measure complexity?”

Hint: it’s usually us who bear the burden. When we strive for the elimination of complexity from user experiences, it forces designers and developers to work much harder — and build much more complex systems — to create the appearance of simplicity.

The complexity is never removed. It’s just moved from the user on to us. Never lose sight of how you’re measuring complexity. If you save 10% of complexity from the user but it adds 50% more complexity to build it, was it worth it?

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Benek Lisefski

Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 18 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.

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