Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Beauty of Simplicity

Fast Company has a nice article on the tension between simple design and sufficient design. (That's characterization of the problem, not the author's). The Beauty of Simplicity gets into some useful case studies after the lead-in on Google's home page.

Some highlights: Less isn't more, just enough is more. What constitutes "just enough" is harder than it looks. ... "It's easier," says Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, "to market technology than ease of use." "Every new feature makes things more complicated , even if you never use them." But.... "The market for simplicity is complex," says Dan Ariely, a business-school professor who is spending a year off from MIT figuring out how to quantify the value of simplicity at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

There's the Philips corporate retooling story:

How do you make your products simpler? You start by simplifying your company. ...Philips deployed researchers in seven countries, asking nearly 2,000 consumers to identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response was loud and urgent. "Almost immediately, we hit on the notion of complexity and its relationship to human beings," says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. Rather than merely retooling products, Philips would also transform itself into a simpler, more market-driven organization. That initiative has been felt from the highest rungs of the organization to the lowest. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5... While many of the new products have yet to hit the market, early results of the business reorganization, particularly in North America, have been dramatic. Sales growth for the first half of 2005 was up 35%, and the company was named Supplier of the Year by Best Buy and Sam's Club.

Then there's the Intuit story, which rings loudly to me.

... So Hicks's team first tried a knockoff of Intuit's QuickBooks Basic, with a bunch of features turned off. Then they confidently took the product out for a test-drive with 100 potential customers. And it bombed. It was still too hard to use, still riddled with accounting jargon, still too expensive. They realized they had to start from scratch. "We had to free ourselves and say, 'Okay, from an engineering point of view, we're going to use this code base, but we need to design it from a customer's point of view,' " says Lisa Holzhauser, who was in charge of the product's user interface. ...They pared back 125 setup screens to three, and 20 major tasks to six essentials. They spent days worrying about the packaging, knowing that to this audience, something labeled "Simple Accounting" was an oxymoron.

Above all, they subjected their work to the demanding standards of Intuit's usability lab, run by Kaaren Hanson. To get a product by her, users must be able, 90% of the time, to accomplish the tasks deemed most critical. It's a draconian standard. But "if our goal was to make it 'as easy as we can,' " Hanson says, "we wouldn't be as successful as if we had set a concrete number."

The Simple Start team thought they had nailed the user-interface problem after their third iteration of the product got rave reviews for its look and feel. But task completion results from the lab were dismal. The launch was delayed for months while the team reengineered the tools until they measured up. [Lynn's bold, not theirs.]

The additional time was worth it. Simple Start--a product with 15 years of sophisticated QuickBooks code lurking behind an interface even a Luddite could love--sold 100,000 units in its first year on the market. Even better, reviews from target customers indicate that Intuit hit the mark. Ken Maples, owner of a tiny flight-instruction school in Cupertino, California, summed it up: "It's easy to use. It's got everything I need and nothing more."

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