Designing Simplicity

Designing simplicity can be harder than it looks. In the past few decades, the design of everything from alarm clocks to automobiles has gone through a long and gradual process of “feature creep” fueled by marketers’ dual desire both to justify a higher price and to promote this year’s model as “new and improved.” In fact, many executives I speak to seem to equate innovation with added features.

If you talk to customers, however, they crave simplicity in their lives. They are intimidated by filling out the complex forms created by government agencies and financial institutions. They get lost among the pull-down menus of business software systems cluttered with features that they might never use. They get so confused trying to set the alarm clock in their hotel room that they often give up trying—only to be woken up by the alarm set by a guest who stayed before them. A recent JD Powers survey of the Driver Interactive Vehicle Experience showed that 1 in 5 drivers had barely used even half of the sophisticated features built into their new cars. And even in the tech-savvy Silicon Valley where I live, people will actually use the word “hate” when expressing intense frustration about the multiple television remote controls they must wrestle with, just to watch today’s favorite sporting event.

Nowhere is the conflict between simplicity and feature escalation more intense than in software. Since software features can often be “free” (or more precisely, at no variable cost per unit sold), the temptation is to load them on. Software companies love to show “feature charts” comparing their product lines to competitors’, with their own product always having more checks in more boxes on the chart. No one ever stops to ask, “Does this feature matter to our customers?” In other words, “Will our customer truly care? Will it make their life any better?”

Unfortunately those questions usually go unasked, and the logic of the feature chart leads to a form of arms war, in which every company vies to amass a greater quantity of features—even if some are ultimately useless or undiscovered by the consumer.

So enlightened marketers and engineers might pause for a moment in their and consider the possibility of simplicity instead. As business guru Tom Peters used to say, “Strategy is the art of sacrifice.” Sometimes, when it comes to features, less is more.

I am not suggesting that simplicity is always easy to do. In fact, the technological innovation required to simplify your customer’s life may be quite sophisticated. Your team may have to work extra-hard to make a product or service look easy. Think of the metaphor a beautiful swan, gliding smoothly across a lake. On the surface, the swan has such grace and elegance that it appears to sail along effortlessly. If you look beneath the water however, you’ll see that the swan is busy paddling away at a furious pace. Simplicity can take a lot of work. But the results can have a grace and beauty all their own.

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