Simplicity Sells

The new mantra for developers and marketers is simplicity.

Our newfound love of simplicity was the clear message in the spoof video "What if Microsoft did the iPod packaging?" Apple's packaging is simple; the Microsoft spoof was cluttered beyond belief--but remember, it was a spoof after all.

Much has been written about Steve Job's elegant simplicity in his speeches and slides. Many pundits imply that his slides are better because he uses Keynote instead of PowerPoint. That's just silly. It's not the medium; it's the message. He makes only a few points, he makes them simply, he uses the slides to cement the point, and he's really sure of his message.

By the way, I love the new Apple ad campaign with the Windows and Mac guys. If you haven't seen 'em, go here. For a contrary view of the Mac, go here (caution: some profanity).

At TED, the conference for Technology, Entertainment & Design, three presentations use simplicity and one advocates it. David Pogue discusses simplicity in technology development with a few gags that really hit the mark--and some somewhat funny musical bits about Gates and Jobs.

As for illustration through example, Al Gore is truly hysterical in his opening comments about his post-VP career. He then uses a series of slides, each with a single point. Compared to Jobs, Gore's slides are rather sloppy but Gore's delivery makes up for it.

Sir Ken Robinson talks about creativity and education. His talk is humorous, using stories to make a clear plea for emphasizing creativity in education. Does he have slides? I don't remember... but I remember his message.

Hans Rosling reviews census data in an incredibly persuasive manner; complex information delivered comprehensively. How has the world changed in the last 40 years? Bubbles represent countries, the side of the bubble represents the country's population, and then the bubbles move across two axes to show changes. WOW! This is what data mining is all about!

Simplicity in presentations is a beginning. But we also admire simplicity in technology products. Google's home page; Apple's iPhoto and iWeb which mask complexity with elegance; Interlink's PowerPoint remote with buttons for next slide, last slide, and turn off the slide--and nothing else!

Why aren't phones simpler?

I remember attending Rolm phone training in 1983 where we learned how to transfer, park, pick, and conference calls. Yet, here in 2006, how often do you hear, "Wait, I'm going to try to add another person into the call. If I lose you...."

My brother bought a Panasonic home phone with so many buttons that visitors to his house can't answer the phone when it rings. Panasonic engineers appear to think more is better but Bang & Olufsen takes a different approach. Hide the complexity from the novice (just a few buttons) but offer power under the hood (through the menus). Which approach is used for your products? Oh, and while we're at it, wouldn't it be great if your cell phone was easy to use as an iPod? Oh, and while we're at it, wouldn't it be great if your cell phone jumped on your landline when it was in the house? Check out the video of an Apple iTalk. (Is it real? I dunno. Hope so.)

My wife's new iMac came with Front Row, an astounding simple but powerful front-end for DVDs, videos, music, and photos. If I could talk to the designers at Apple, I'd ask them to add a TiVo interface to the iMac and then I wouldn't need a TV at all. (Hey Steve! Please buy TiVo!) My (old) Sony DVD player has dozens of buttons, only a few of which are really used. My wife marked the ones she cared about with nail polish so she could quickly identify them until the dog put the player in Spanish by stepping on the remote; that's why we now have a BOSE system.

My dad's new car knows that the key is within 3 feet of the car and just unlocks the doors. No buttons. But you can't pop the truck, turn on the car, open the sunroof, or any of the many things that are possible (but infrequently done). You can do these things with the key fob but he rarely bothers. And Mom has lost the key fob in the bottom of her purse.

The challenge of simplicity is caring about the customer more than about the developer. How many of your customers want the power features versus the most-often used ones? We need to worry more about the frequent usage of a product and less about the possible, edge-case scenarios.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson was a founding instructor at Pragmatic Institute, a role he held for more than 15 years before he left to start Under10 Playbook. In his return to Pragmatic Institute, Steve supports the complete learning path for product teams, ensuring they are fully armed for success. 

Over the course of his career, Steve has helped thousands of companies and tens of thousands of product professionals implement product management processes. He has worked in the high-tech arena since 1981, rising through the ranks from product manager to chief marketing officer. Steve has experience in technical, sales and marketing management positions at companies that specialize in both hardware and software. In addition, he is an author, speaker and advisor on product strategy and product management.

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