Agile Development, Information Technology, Product Development, User Experience, User-centered Design

Keep it simple, smarty!

People often ask me what I think, are the most important factors that contribute to the success of a product. My answer varies depending on the nature of the product, the person asking the question and my mood in that moment, to name a few. But interestingly, if we draw up a list of the responses to this question, the two items that top my list are simplicity and consistency. Yes, there is no doubt that these two aspects of user experience help to a largest extent in making any product, a huge hit. In this post,  I will cover the first one, ‘simplicity’ and how we can leverage this powerful yet ‘simple’ usability mantra to turn your products and applications into a success.

Simplicity sells

Yes, simplicity does sell and sells, all by itself. Its perhaps the biggest value proposition in your product. In any industry and any geographic market whatsoever, you have hundreds and thousands of products and variants. There is a huge margin of difference between the leading few and the following majority. Often this boils down to one super differentiating factor and that is simplicity. It works wonders not just before sales, but also after the sale is done during the usage by end-users. This positive experience during the product usage prompts more usage, referrals and increased sales, overall.

A case in point is the search industry in the 1990s. Most of the web sites and applications at that time, including the then search leaders like Altavista and MSN had their web pages all cluttered with too much content. Google then understood that the only way to make users happy was by uncluttering and uncomplicating their search experience. They did this by keeping it really simple, with the entire page being occupied by a text box and a button. Need I say more about the success of Google search and how this powerful execution of minimalist design made Google the giant that it is today, not just in search but in software, mobile and many more product areas.

Less is More

In the words of the great architect, Ludwig Van Der Rohe, “Less is More”  has been a watchword for the architects, designers and stylists. A pithy motto which says it all and stands by its meaning, simplicity is just that . While some designers also refer to this school of simplicity  as ‘Minimalist Design’, other professionals and users might prefer to call it ‘working easy’. Making things simple is often a complicated process in itself and does ask for a methodical/systematic approach in the product development space. In this post, I wish to mention a few tips and techniques that I follow as part of my product engineering practice. You might see that these are just a few in the hundreds of ways, and for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on a few things because, less is more. :)

Let us ‘uncomplicate’

There is no dearth of complexity in our lives and professions. We are inundated with huge number of problems, challenges, and pain areas to give enough exercise to our body, mind and soul. Obviously we don’t want the products that we use to add up to this already complicated and stressful situation.  The only way we can try and help ourselves is by looking at the problems and looking for the solutions that make it really easy.

  

There are various ways to attempt this uncomplication. However, the underlying concept is that you first need to identify the complexities involved and then find ways to remove or minimize them. To be able to do this, I suggest you try and get answers to the following questions.

  • Whose problem is it?
  • What problem(s) do you need to solve?
  • Why were the problems there in the first place?
  • How does solving this problem help the person(s)?
  • Where can we go from here?

Reduce the cognitive load

The gateway to simplifying the product lies in the extent of cognitive load on users. I would say that this is the first and foremost step in the way to deliver a great user experience. This cognitive load could be in the form of visual or textual elements, for example when we refer to the presentation layer. It could take the shape of deep levels of navigation or the manner in which the elements are laid out by the information architecture. This is so important an aspect of the product engineering model, that I planned to write a separate blog post on this in the near future.

Cure Featuritis with simplicity

Most of the product managers are pretty well aware that they have a potential evil that they constantly need to fight off and that is Featuritis.  However much they try, they invariably fall into the trap of adding more features and functionality, without validating how beneficial or what value they add to the product and its users. In a never-ending chase to build a better mouse-trap, the product takes the shape of a mammoth white elephant. Or just to exaggerate, the product could turn up into a ‘Frankenstein monster’ whose course cannot be controlled any longer by the product management team.

In the context of  electronics, computers and software products &  applications too, there has been an increase in the complexity scale corresponding to the rapid increase in the number of products. For instance, just jog your memory, thinking about the size of the device and the number of buttons on your  Television remote control as you changed your Telly sets over the years. These are a great proof that with time and number of products in the eco-system, the complexity only increases and the converse may not be true all the time.

 

The only cure for this disease is Simplicity. Ask yourself the following questions when you want to add any new feature or make changes to an existing functionality.

  • Who is this feature meant for?
  • What problem is it trying to solve? or how does it help the person?
  • Which users’ task is this feature relate to?
  • How better can we make the product/process?
  • How different is this feature from similar ones in previous versions or competitors’ products?

Push them under the carpet

You don’t have to give everything upfront and right on the first level. Understand the goals of your users from their own perspectives. Identify the tasks mapping to these goals or needs. For each task, you need to identify its importance and urgency.  Then decide where in the order of things, you need to place the task and corresponding feature. It might happen that the feature needs to placed not at the top level, but somewhere deep down in the 2nd or 3rd levels of the hierarchy. That should be perfectly fine because you based your decision on the sound logic and understanding of the users’ needs and their key tasks.

A perfect example for this is the all too popular Swiss army knife. Give all the options to users, but let them decide how they wish to use a specific option, depending on the circumstances and context of usage.

Not just ‘ease of use’

Some people would equate simplicity to ‘ease of use’. But I think that simplicity goes way beyond ease of use and it is the effect of an all encompassing experience not just related to usage of the product.  During the analysis, design and development of products, teams must take note of simplicity as a mandatory requirement for the product. In fact, the biggest measure for their effort and productivity is directly proportional to the success of the product in that how simpler the product got when compared to its previous version or that of the competitors’.

My five tips for simplicity

Finally, you can check how effective and simple your product has been designed and developed. I suggest you popup the following questions putting yourself in the shoes of the users and with their conceptual model in your mind. When you are satisfied with the answers that you give yourself, well you have got a product that flies!

  • What can I do with this product or app?… (Functionality)
  • Where am I now and where can I go from here?… (Navigation)
  • What should I do now to make <something> happen?… (Interaction)
  • Is it pleasing to the eyes? …(Presentation)
  • Is there help, ready and when I need it?…(Help)

With this I end this post, and hope you enjoyed reading it and find it useful. Please do drop a line if you have any suggestions or questions. Until next post, ciao!

10 Comments

  1. Shawna Paganelli

    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new online community for the technology products. Your blog posts offered us with valuable info to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our entire community is thankful to you. Great Job! Keep writing.

  2. Jack Martins

    Your article really spurred my interest and it’s also not simple to do. I really like the method that you made your particular points. This really is persuasive content. Keep it up!

  3. Ilene Karo

    Very nice post on simplicity and designing products for ease of use. I like your tips and techniques for simplifying the products for users. Keep the good blogs coming…

  4. Liz W.

    Sweet write-up. Like your style of writing. Agree 100% with your views on the minimalist design. In fact, we consciously follow the approach of ‘Less is More’ in our product design process. Looking forward to see more useful posts from you

  5. Dave Penn

    A really nice blog and site, you have. I am a regular reader of you blog posts and find them both informative and filled with helpful, practical tips. Keep writing the good stuff!

  6. Shanmugham K N

    Keep it simple – holds good for any application ! there is a old chinese saying ‘ it is simle to be great, but to to be simple is ‘great’ ‘ . It may be meant for personal life, but can be extended to any application. Dr. Edward de Bono used to repeatedly mention that there should be a Department /Ministry for simplification. We can simplify things/projects/problems only when we fully understand the system.

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