May 9, 2001

Simplicity costs less and works better

Summary: if ordinary people have to use it, make it simple. You'll be doing your users a favour, and saving money too.

Over the past five or six years, the world wide web has seen one overwhelming trend: consolidation.

The problem with consolidation, as I see it, is the confusion that it creates. When two big businesses merge, it becomes harder for consumers to figure out who sells what, how to buy it, and who to contact when it's not working (which happens a lot).

The web is not immune from this syndrome: aside from a few well-designed portal sites, consolidated websites have way too many links, way too much clutter, and way too much advertising. Many consumer technology products are laden with similar problems. Take the personal computer, for instance. It explains why paper is still so popular.

Too many cooks spoil the broth. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of technology. If you add too much clutter to a website, too many features to a product, or too many widgets to an interface, you'll ruin it, at least as far as usability goes. Users spend an awful lot of time using their computers for practical, productive purposes, but they probably spend at least as much time troubleshooting those computers, or waiting for those computers, or on the phone with someone who can't fix those computers, but will charge $50 an hour anyway.

I have an electronic garage door opener. It works perfectly: I just push a big, obvious button on a simple, single-function control, and the garage door opens (or closes, depending on whether it was open or closed to begin with). I only needed to use the device once before I understood how it worked. It doesn't do anything else, and it doesn't have any fancy gimmicks.

There's plenty of evidence to support simplicity as a route to success. Dell, the company that decided to sell computers directly to customers, simplifying the computer purchasing process, is the number one computer maker. Yahoo!, the internet portal that opted to go for a clear, usable interface and navigational structure, is one of the most well-known brands on the internet. Paper, phones, and portable CD players are all successful because they have a clear purpose.

Conversely, there's plenty of evidence to support the kitchen-sink approach as a route to failure. Apple used to have so many product lines, that even its management couldn't develop and market them properly. Five years ago, Apple was losing money on the same scale as the failed dot-com companies of 1999 and 2000. Now, thanks to streamlined choices for its customers, Apple is consistently profitable and growing. As long as you don't have a monopoly, you've got to give people something that they can easily understand.

The key to simplicity: focus

To be simple, you have to focus. Trying to build a website that does everything, or a product that does everything, or an interface that does everything, is futile. It's much more practical to define a specific purpose, or a specific functionality, or a specific goal, and stick with it.

If you're developing a website, pick a specific group of people you want to reach, and be realistic. No matter what any marketer tells you, the web is not home to 500 million new customers or supporters of your cause. Think of one or two ways you can offer an extremely valuable service or information to them over the web, and then build a website that does only those things.

If you're trying to develop a product, think of a killer app, and then do that. That's the reason that light switches are so popular, even though there are complex timers and computer-based home electrical system management applications. That's why a lot of people prefer a radio or CD player to a computer: they start up instantly, and don't crash.

Why simplicity costs less

It's cheaper to develop a simpler website, or product, or interface. It's also cheaper to avoid building a complex technical support mechanism, writing long manuals, and hiring staff to take phone calls from irate customers because your product is too hard to use. I'll even go one further, and say that simplicity will generate more money, because, even though you may not be offering every service to everyone, you'll be offering something valuable to just the right people.

You can spend $10000 on a fancy Flash introduction to your website that offers no value to your users. They don't pay to see the animation (nor would they), and they aren't getting a service from you. In fact, most users will either see it once, and ignore it, or just skip it altogether. Lose that animation, and save $10000.

Simplicity is the wave of the future

When the industrial revolution swept the western world, it pretty much eradicated the jack of all trades. Before industrialization, one person often had to do everything in a product's life cycle: gather the raw materials, process the raw materials, build the product, and sell it. After industrialization, workers could focus on a single task, a single part of the product creation process, which simplified their lives. (Never mind the social injustices that also accompanied the revolution...)

The computer revolution brought us PCs, the modern jack of all trades. Now, even though we're seeing a lot of consolidation, the PC is beginning to fade away. Specialized, focused devices that do one thing really well are becoming very popular (see cell phones, Yahoo!, and electronic garage door openers). All systems work in a similar way (see the human body with its countless specialized cells, orchestras with their many distinct instruments, and the many different facets of medicine), and soon, the web, technology products, and interfaces will too.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.