Simplicity is a challenging goal for virtually every task you (or I) may have. Why is it a goal at all? Successfully reducing the presentation of complicated tasks into simple components is a goal because it is typically a required part for the success of the task.
Possibly the best example of this phenomenon in action is Wikipedia, which hosts several different versions of its pages. The version everyone knows about is the supremely academic one, the one Wikipedia presents by default. Here’s an excerpt of one such page’s introduction, the Wikipedia entry for the Standard Model of particle physics.
The Standard Model of particle physics is a theory that describes three of the four known fundamental interactions between the elementary particles that make up all matter. It is a quantum field theory developed between 1970 and 1973 which is consistent with both quantum mechanics and special relativity. To date, almost all experimental tests of the three forces described by the Standard Model have agreed with its predictions. However, the Standard Model falls short of being a complete theory of fundamental interactions, primarily because of its lack of inclusion of gravity, the fourth known fundamental interaction, but also because of the large number of numerical parameters (such as masses and coupling constants) that must be put “by hand” into the theory (rather than being derived from first principles).
Contrast the above with this excerpt for the same page, the Standard Model of particle physics, taken from the simple English version of Wikipedia:
The Standard Model of physics is the best idea to say how fundamental forces and elementary particles work. It uses quantum mechanics and special relativity. In physics there are many different particles and forces, the Standard Model says that all particles and forces are only two different types: fermions and bosons.
Okay, now that’s a lot easier to understand. In this example, the simple English version is a lot shorter, and at first glance that might strike you as its major distinguishing factor. However, if you read closer, you’ll notice many things specific to the language that was used that serve to give the simple English version much more accessibility than the academic one. Some of these things include:
- Simpler, more familiar vocabulary. Instead of using surgically-precise words that may not be familiar to an uninformed reader, plainer words (and no less accuracy) are used to describe concepts.
- Dense sentences are broken up into smaller chunks. When accessibility or successful communication is the primary concern, longer sentences that deliver more information in one punch may be counter-productive. Instead, it’s often better to chop up larger concepts and deliver them in smaller-sized chunks that are easier to digest.
- Specifics are introduced one at a time, and defined at each instance. Possibly the most common error writers (especially technical writers) make is introducing lots of interdependent ideas at once or without proper prior context. Rather than work your way from a complicated idea to a simple conclusion, work instead from a simple foundation to a complicated idea, building vocabulary as you go (see point the first about vocabulary).
Of course, this is always easier said than done, and it is also why simplicity is intuitively understood by lots of people to be a hard thing to create. Presenting things simply is a challenge because it requires more knowledge than simply understanding the thing; it requires understanding the thing and understanding what pieces of the thing your audience does not (yet) understand. The value of simple lies in being able to fill those gaps.