Layered Complexity is the New Simplicity / by Scott Magee

Less is more is a fallacy. A decreased visbile quantity of interactions directly in front of you can be perceptually flawed. As technology provides the means to cram more context into a smaller canvas, we are left with more instead of less.

More information waiting patiently behind linked text on the web.
More functions beckoned by gestural actions.
More hues to illustrate subtleties of visual communication.

Technology has allowed us to combine these layers of information into rich interactions. The real innovation is the user’s ability to modify the available layers into a dashboard of interest, yielding a simplified end result. Layered complexity is the new simplicity.


A GUI Evolution

In Brad Myers’ 1996 article, “A Brief History of Human Interaction Technology” he described how Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) fundamentally changed computing. Myers notes that computer use proliferated as systems crunched more and more processes and developed a Graphical Use Interface (GUI). This evolution simplified the actual act of using a computer beyond countless characters of complex syntax to moving pixels on the screen. WYSIWYG became the new norm as raw computing hid behind the curtain and a simplified graphic presentation became the primary modus operandi.

Seemingly unrelated metaphors composed the GUI as shortcuts to the familiar. “Mice” and “windows” allowed users to conceptually grasp the mechanics of input and output. These applications and devices illustrated the movement towards simple interfaces, yet adding layers of complexity as the screen catches up to the capabilities of new input devices. Suddenly, combinations of keystrokes and movements allowed a simple input structure to reveal underlying complexity for the new “power user.” 

Applications like hypertext, computer-aided design and spreadsheets illustrate increasing simplicity overlaying increasing complexity. Rich meaning behind a simple word denotes increasing value beyond the original meaning. Hypertext linked relevant sources that vouched for each other’s information quality, creating complex underlying relationships of trusted sources, yet unlocked merely by clicking a word.

As applications morphed into software toolkits and architectures, Myers notes that simplicity increasingly redefined itself with enhanced computing power. These standardized components were designed to be easily pulled off the shelf in a representing lines of code in a convenient wrapper. Complex code was able to be recalled over and over again, rendering complicated interactions simpler by leaps in efficiencies. Coding leaped exponentially as computer languages increased in complexity. The new simplicity allowed a single line of code to exist where 5-10 once stood leaving complexity as the underlying engine driving richer interactions in less keystrokes and clicks.


Overt Hidden Meaning

In Rob van Kranenburg’s “The Internet of Things,” he exclaimed that “...the ability to read data as data is what makes new beginnings.” He posited the reciprocal nature of adding complexity to the system by adding additional meaning to the data. With more data, a different and possibly deeper solution would be sought and found quicker.


As computing disappears into an invisible physical presence with increasingly complex capabilities, technologies like augmented reality have become a present day reality. Data has been planted and sought out by users and now the devices themselves. RFID and Near Field Communication enable devices to exchange increasing amounts of raw data, yet render complex values in an intuitive dashboard of waypoints and benchmarks

If data is data, then everything in the physical and virtual world contributes to the accumulation and processing of information. People, buildings and cars are the new artifacts. Computing relegates itself to the background as simple interactions hide elegantly behind ordered processes. HCI has become a deliberate decision of seamless consciousness that simultaneously broadcasts and collects. Physical movement by the user is the new “hot app” as the disappearing computer comprehends the nuances of kinetic action. The user will be the interface, not the screen. 


More is More

The evolution of ambient technology into augmented reality will further render increasingly complex data sets into rich meaning of simplified representation. Data enriches the immediate surroundings, further increasing the value of subsequent incremental data into layers of increasingly complex meaning. The user controls the display and degree of certainty depending on the utility and intent. Merely toggling layers of processed information will differentiate the novice from expert.


Only the user will be privy to the new knowledge assessed from his resources and immediate data inflow. Interfaces will become private and virtual as the trajectory of data sense-making maintains its course. The digital divide will grow to new inequalities as the hidden layers of meaning will be available only to those who can afford them. A collective layered meaning will trump disparate assessments.

Simplicity has become the natural culmination of ordering data. Whereby a simplified presentation in front of the user deceptively hides complex processes, the user perceives less action through visual output cues and richer interactions. The meaning lies amongst the layers of complexity presented as an orderly system. Singular modules represent volumes of data in a plug and play world. Technology has enabled the user to do more with a misconception of “less,” where layered complexity is indeed the new simplicity.