Striving for simplicity

Apropos yesterday’s posting on the need for simple designs (USA Today doesn’t get it) comes this wonderful piece from Gerry McGovern, “Simplicity is hard work”. Gerry is one of the clearest thinkers around on website design and content. He also publishes a weekly newsletter “New Thinking” which I strongly recommend (click here to subscribe). The following is the article in full:

Simplicity is hard work
Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder. What is simple to the creator is rarely so simple to the customer.
I recently bought a Philips CD burner. Its software was difficult to install. What I wanted to do was copy music I had bought from Apple iTunes. When I finally managed to complete the installation, it wouldn’t let me do that. Thus, I wasted about 30 minutes installing and uninstalling the software.
I decided to try iTunes support. There were simple instructions about how to copy songs onto a CD. I followed them. I was able to simply copy songs using the Apple software and the Philips CD burner.
Philips currently has a marketing campaign called “sense and simplicity”. I checked it up on its website. The first sentence reads, “The digital revolution is supposed to have made our lives easier, but studies have shown that’s not the case.” How true.
In the middle of the page that this text comes from is a large animation that is constantly in motion, making it very difficult to read the text. It is ironic that text which is championing simplicity should be cluttered by a totally unnecessary and highly distracting animation. Whoever designed this page certainly doesn’t understand simplicity very well.
Apple understands simplicity. Its products live simplicity. Practically every Apple product I have ever owned has been a pleasure to use. iTunes and iPod are simple, elegant and intuitive.
I keep noticing advertising campaigns now by organizations that are telling us how simple their products and services are. I don’t believe them because my experience is that while many talk simplicity, very few practice it.
I’m sure that within Philips there is a genuine belief that it is important to make their products as simple as possible to use. However, there is a big difference between marketing your products as simple to use and making them genuinely simple.
Simplicity is hard. It’s expensive to do well. “Our experience is that for every mouse click we take out of the user experience, 20 things have to happen in our software behind the scenes,” states Brad Treat, Chief Executive of SightSpeed.
You are the worst judge of whether your website or product is simple. You know your website. You designed it. Remember, a potential customer who has never been at your website before will spend less than one minute figuring out your homepage.
We outsource what we don’t think is a core activity. Support is obviously not seen as a core activity by most organizations, since it is outsourced so much. Well, people ring up support because there is complexity in their lives (something doesn’t work). They are hoping that someone will bring back simplicity (a vain hope in my experience).
I was once told by a manager of a software company that customers were complaining that they couldn’t find anything on the support section of the website. The response of the technical writers was that the customers weren’t searching hard enough.
To achieve simplicity an organization needs to be genuinely customer-focused. Extra investment will be required, as well as a special commitment from designers and management. Is it worth it? Certainly, organizations such as Apple and Google are showing that simplicity can become a genuine competitive advantage.
Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern provides website content management solutions

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