The Law of Conservation of Complexity


Original Formulation (ca. 1984)

“Every application has an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is: Who will have to deal with it—the user, the application developer, or the platform developer?”

Perspectives on The Law

For a detailed discussion, see Dan Saffer's interview.

Other perspectives:

  1. Bullet    “In this case, the complexity of managing the translation of object references [when moving the object to/from disk], is moved out of the hands of the programmer and into the hands of the system. The complexity is not eliminated, but rather moved around so that the programmers efforts are focused  on the application problem.” — “Object Databases in Action: Technology and Application” by  Tim Andrews, Chapter 4 of Information Technology in Action: Trends and Perspectives, edited by Richard Y. Wang, pp. 63-82, February 1993.

  2. Bullet    “The law of conservation of complexity serves as a balance to the Pattern Priesthood. It becomes important to select patterns which contain enough substance as to be worth the effort, but at the same time are not so complex that only the elite understand them.”The Patterns Handbook: Techniques, Strategies, and Applications by Linda Rising, p. 350, June 28, 1998.

  3. Bullet    “Given ... that we will continue to reduce the proportion of complexity ... that we expose to the user, we may expect that the difficulty and complexity of our own tasks ... will only increase over time.” — blog post by Bruce Tognazzini, September, 1998.

  4. Bullet    “The goal of the SAP CAF is to shift as much of the complexity of developing a composite application as possible away from programmers and onto the tool itself.” — SAP NetWeaver For Dummies by Dan Woods and Jeffrey Word, p. 267, May 7, 2004.

  5. Bullet    “With the transition rig [an adaptive sail configuration], complexity has moved from the use of the product to the design and construction. In many cases, this is a desirable trade-off, especially for mature products, whether they are software interfaces, physical controls, or even web sites.” — blog post by David Bishop, January 27, 2005; retold in Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology by Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay and Mickey McManus, p. 149, August 29, 2012..

  6. Bullet    “The complexity of a business process ... is like energy, it cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be moved around from one place to another.” — ITworld post by Sean McGrath, May 19, 2005.

  7. Bullet    “As The Who told us in their 1966 song ‘Substitute,’ the simple things you see are all complicated.” — Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices by Dan Saffer, p. 55,
    July 28, 2006.

  8. Bullet    “In short, particularly in the interactions between humans and computers, there seems to be a principle of conservation of complexity—what is complex in digital representation and computation can only be simplified at the expense of what is explicitly represented.” — Fundamentals of Software Integration by Kay Hammer and Tina Timmerman, p. 112, December 11, 2007. Independent formulation of the Law. See also pp. 270-271.

  9. Bullet    “Talking about something being simple when not actually looking at how inevitable complexity is going to be dealt with, is asking to get into the weeds.” — blog post by Bill de hOra, August 15, 2008.

  10. Bullet    “I think if we look at some of the most successful applications in history, we’ll find Tesler’s law at work behind their success.” — blog post by Mark Mzyk, August 17, 2008.

  11. Bullet    “Just as energy is never lost, the minimum amount of complexity an entire system must have to achieve its goals can never be reduced, it can only be moved around.” (blog post, August 25, 2008) and “It's also a factor in the organization ... If someone (or some department) does less, then someone else must do more, else the result will not occur.” (blog post, September 3, 2008) — both by Eachan Fletcher.

  12. Bullet    “...the total amount of complexity in a software system is always constant and can be moved across layers. ... Where you place it is an architectural choice.” — Microsoft® .NET: Architecting Applications for the Enterprise by Dino Esposito and Andrea Saltarello, p. 368, October 15, 2008. Independent formulation of the Law.

  13. Bullet    “An example of this transfer of complexity can be seen in automatic route finders ... the computer carries out the calculations [of the optimum route] rather than the human user.” — Cognitive Work Analysis: Coping with Complexity by Daniel P. Jenkins, Neville A. Stanton, Paul M. Salmon and Guy H. Walker, p. 8, January 1, 2009.

  14. Bullet    “I especially like the economic parallel which hides beneath it - how we trade, value, exchange and often disregard the scarcest resource (and currency) of all: time.” — blog post by Matt Griswold, 2010.

  15. Bullet    “Moreover, the software vendors have left all the technical complexity for the user ... The only way to get to the desired level of usability is to design software that would reflect the work process of the user (workflow) and the mental model (concepts) of the user (terminology).” — eHealth - A Global Perspective by Alan R. Shark and Sylviane Toporkoff, p. 125, March 17, 2010.

  16. Bullet    “People who design learning-at-work programmes based on slavish Cognitive Load principles probably believe they're shouldering the responsibility for the 'irreducible complexity' of learning [but] they could merely be postponing the hard work of learning. You can't think for somebody else any more than you can eat or drink for them.” — waybacked blog post by Bunchberry & Fern, March 25, 2010.

  17. Bullet    “The secret of creating a simple user experience is to shift complexity into the right place, so that each moment feels simple.” — Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design by Giles Colborne, p. 180, September 26, 2010.

  18. Bullet    “The automobile and its computer systems become more complex every year, but this hidden complexity transforms the driver’s task, simplifying it while making it safer.” — Living with Complexity by Donald Norman, p. 224, October 29, 2010.

  19. Bullet    “As the apparent complexity of a system is made easier, the complexity of the designers' task must increase to fill the gap. Great news for those designers ready for the task, and for those students studying interaction design in school today.” — review of Norman’s book by Robert Blinn, February 1, 2011.

  20. Bullet    “Start by figuring out where the core complexity lies, then decide which part of that the user might like to have, and when in the overall process.” — Microinteractions: Designing with Details by Dan Saffer, pp. 67-69, May 20, 2013.

  21. Bullet    “It could take the engineers many extra hours to save the users just a few seconds each, but according to Tesler that’s an appropriate trade-off. I suggest that this is the same model we should use in marketing.” — blog post by John Kuefler, November 4, 2015.

  22. Bullet    “Complexity is thus shifted from physical infrastructure to algorithms.” — How Raffaello D’Andrea summed up his robot-assisted airport baggage concept to Kyle Chayka for The New York Times Magazine, November 13, 2016, p. 58.