Minimalism & The Simplest Thing That Could Possibly Work

One of the core tenants of Agile/XP/TDD/Getting Real/Lean (etc) is doing the simplest thing that could possibly work. TDD says you should write a test and then only write enough code to make it pass. Lean says you should think about “minimal marketable features”. Paul Graham says you should launch just as soon as you have 1 feature that anyone would care about (here and here). Why is this so important? The fact of the matter is that 80% of your users use 20% of your app. That is to say, most people don’t care about most of what you have built. So why build it?

It turns out it’s really hard to know what people want before you make it. There are certainly ways to mitigate it, user observation testing, paper prototyping, but sometimes these things end up taking more time than just doing the simplest thing that could possibly work. In the end, you just need to build it, get it out there and see if anyone cares.

Well, the other side of this coin is that it’s also really hard to limit yourself to doing the simplest thing that could possibly work. You have to say “no” to many things and many people, including yourself, and people just aren’t good at that. No one wants to be the guy that always “puts down others ideas”.



I’m very happy to be seeing a new trend in web apps, minimalism. I can only hope, that it continues to pervade all corners of software, both web based and desktop based. The tip of the spear seems to be the “helvetification” of popular apps. Some examples:

So what is so interesting about some new skins for some web apps? Is it just that I really like Helvetica? Well, I do like Helvetica, but the really interesting thing about these skins is not that they change the fonts and colors, it’s that they actually hide or remove significant parts of the apps. I’ve been using Helvetireader for probably over a year now, and I can’t stand to use google reader without it. I *hate* what GReader has become. It’s got tons of stuff I could care less about (probably say, 80% of it’s functionality). Starred Items? I use delicious. Trends? Really? And my favorite “Browse for stuff”. Uh, what? Isn’t that what using the internet is? What if Google Reader was the simplest thing that could possibly work? I think it would look like Helvetireader.

But Wait, There’s more!

So how does a couple skins for a couple web apps me that this is a trend? Well my friends, I didn’t think it did until I saw this:

What is this? It looks like facebook, but they’ve gotten rid of all the crap I don’t care about. is supposed to be a version for “low bandwidth users”, but boy it sure does look like a minimal version of Facebook to me, and I like it. Compare it to say, myspace, and we’re talking Donald Judd levels of minimalism. And have you seen an Amazon Kindle? What about Readability from Arc90 (which happens to be really popular)? All of a sudden, we’re starting to get into trend categories, and I haven’t even mentioned how minimalism is the entire strategy of Apple, 37Signals, Twitter, and Tumblr.

But Features Are Good!

Gist Dashboard

Well, features can be good, but they can also be terrible. Recently, an interesting sounding website called “Gist” launched. What does Gist do? “Gist is designed to help the professional email user who often opens up their inbox only to feel like it’s helplessly out of control” (via ReadWriteWeb).  When I think of designing a site that is supposed to “take control” of something which is in chaos, I think of clean, minimal, organization. I would think that this tool would help me get to inbox zero, where there’s nothing in my email inbox but whitespace and the freedom to actually get my work done. So when I see screen shots like the one to the right, I can’t but help to think, “Is this really the simplest thing that could possibly work?”  This is a site that’s coming out of beta today. Not something that has been around for a decade. How would anyone know where to look, or what any of those boxes do?

Minimalism != the simplest thing that could possibly work

I could give you a bunch of definitions from famous artists and architects about minimalism, but I’m going to just say that minimalism isn’t the simplest thing that could possibly work, it’s when you optimize tsttcpw. The important point here is that it’s important here is that if you do more than tsttcpw, then you’re much less likely to rip out the parts that no one cares about. And I hope it’s apparent that, people want you to remove this crap. They don’t want more features, they want better experiences. They want that 20% of your application to be 100% of your focus, and they want the 20% to get better, not slowly become 18%, then 12%, then 10% because you keep adding crap they don’t care about. Minimalism, whether it’s in design, or any thing else, is taking that 20% and making it 100%.