In the early 70s, people had limited sources of information ranging from daily local newspapers to local gossips. People used to have simple thought process and based their decisions on a few known facts, and lots and lots of unknowns due to which led people used to crave for more and more information. This, coupled with information outbreak of 1970s, started an information revolution, where lot of never before accessible information was made readily available. For once, information really became the most sought after wealth. That was the dawn of Information Age.
Come 2007 and that Information Age is a passé. Now is the age of Information Bombardment. The human brain gets bombarded with data from the time it boots up in the morning to the time it finally shuts itself down at night. Our minds get so engrossed in processing all the information that we fail to realize that every new variable it adds to a real life equation takes the equation a degree higher. Result? Formulation of a more complex equation that’s even more difficult to solve. Hence, need was soon felt to move from the concept of “Give me all” to “Give me just what I need”. That’s how the concept of personalization and customization spurred up. People realized that they do not need to have all the data — they simply want to get just the information they need. Lesser and more relevant is the data, simpler is the equation and better is the decision making ability. Riding on this very wave of simplicity, Google became one of the most respected and valued organizations of Silicon Valley. It did nothing heroic but just made the task of finding information through the maze of websites, simpler.
Take Away: In everyday life one can adhere to similar guidelines – prioritization, neglecting non-essential data, making the best possible decision even with unknown variables and lastly, keeping the equation open and solving it to the best, as it unfolds.
Communication is a process of exchanging information between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. Sometimes, however, the simplest thing is the one that’s most difficult to follow. In a few of business meetings in international geographies, people play an interesting game called as Lingoing. In this game, managers sew two or more concepts together to make a catchy and sophisticated lingo and then they become the brand ambassador for the new born lingo to general masses-A religious practice normally followed by the top management gurus in biz-world. In the example below three different versions of a sentence are trying to convey essentially the same thing.
The management had a bird’s eye view of the problem
The management had a view of the problem from 30,000 feet
The management helicoptered this problem (New version)
A few words commonly used at business meetings but have yet to make it to Oxford dictionary are:- Equivocalism, Recontextualize, Delayering, Unsiloing, and Dimensionalize. Although fascinating, sometimes they can simply create an ambiguity or complexity. Sometimes the lingo followed by a particular organization becomes so company-specific that communication between employees of two different organizations becomes difficult without exchanging a corporate dictionary.
Take Away: The only purpose of communication is to transfer thoughts from one entity to another without any ambiguity. The clearest form of communication is brief and simple with short sentences.
Simplicity is an offshoot of common sense. Common sense can be defined as an obvious truth to a community. Whatever is obvious generally makes sense. When things become too obvious they become intuition and that is called as Intuitive Simplicity, which incidentally happens to be a brand new buzzword in the biz-world now-a-days. In simple words, it’s defined as something that’s so simple and obvious that it almost falls under the realm of intuitiveness. The whole aim behind making the interfaces intuitive is to reduce the gap between the current knowledge of the user and the targeted knowledge and thereby making the product more acceptable. While other music player creators were busy printing user manuals, Apple was busy refining its user interface. Any music enthusiast can use an iPod with least possible training. However, this does not mean that the product is technically not complex. It definitely is. But its complexity has been abstracted by simple interface.
Another example of Intuitive Simplicity that one can come across is the use of Push door-latch opener and pull handles in the doors in several malls and shopping arcades. Use of this intuitive design is far better and less error prone than the use of “Please pull the door” or “Please push the door” notices normally found hung on the glass doors.
Imagine how it would be to ride a motorbike that allows a user to adjust and play with every little nitty-gritty say, the preload in suspension, the adjustment of visor as per the wind velocity and direction, adjustment of suspension as per the road contours, adjustment of tire pressure to suit the exact rider weight and max grip, adjustment to engine’s power and fuel consumption etc. Will a rider really feel comfortable making all those adjustments before riding? Chances are that he wouldn’t. These are too much for a simple human to grasp. He would rather like to trade some of the finer adjustments that are low on his priority and concentrate on the ones that are most important to you like- stability, acceleration and braking and will feel most satisfied if these three or four features are well taken care off. This brings us to another concept-prioritized cropping of the features. Apple has retained the most useful feature of the list in its product and got rid of all the other complicated no-so-needed features. Yes, there is definitely a tradeoff there but its worth from the customer experience point of view. This is probably one of the reason why several technologically superior products with better design and quality have fail to make a dent in consumer market while iPod has been a runaway success.
Human mind almost always tries to follow the path towards simplicity. It retains what it can understand, co-relates it with the information it already possesses and neglects the rest of it. A simple idea of taking the pain of re-sharpening the blade everyday before shaving and instead using the throwaway razor made Gillette one of the best brands in the world.
Southwest Airlines has always been respected for being profitable and successful airlines. It was founded on the principles of keeping things simple. First, there were only one kind of airplanes, the Boeing 737, that made things simpler for pilots and maintenance people, then there no assigned seats and better yet no overbooking. Things were simple — you come on time, you board on time and the flight leaves on time. In 1971, when Southwest started, they used paper tickets that looked and felt very much like bus tickets. Customers wrote and complained that:1. They threw them in the trash by accident because of their insignificant appearance.2. Their pets ate them.3. They wash them into oblivion with their Jeans. Soon a proposal was made to install a multi-million dollar computerized ticketing system to rectify the problems. However, during one of the discussions, a simple suggestion was made that they should simply modify the cash register machines to print “THIS IS A TICKET” across the top of each piece of paper issued by cash register machines and so they did. The problem was solved.
A few years after that, shortly after Southwest started using the “Just Plane Smart” motto, Stevens Aviation, who had been using “Plane Smart” for their motto, threatened a trademark lawsuit. A lawsuit could have resulted on tainted images for both the airlines as well as lot of financial losses for both. Instead of a lawsuit, the CEOs for both companies formulated a simple yet innovative solution – To stage an arm wrestling match. The loser of each round was to pay $5,000 to the charity of their choice, with the winner gaining the use of the trademarked phrase. Herb Kelleher lost the match for Southwest, with Stevens Aviation (Kurt) winning the rights to the phrase. Although Herb lost, Kurt allowed Southwest Airlines to use the slogan, out of a gesture of goodwill. The net result was both companies having use of the trademark, $15,000 going to charity and a healthy dose of publicity for both the companies.
Another interesting incident is from one of Japan’s biggest cosmetics company. The company received a complaint that a consumer had bought a box of soap that was empty. It immediately isolated the problem to the assembly line, which transported all the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department. For some reason, one soap box went through the assembly line empty. Management tasked its engineers to solve the problem. Post-haste, the engineers worked hard to devise an X-ray machine with high-resolution monitors manned by two people to watch all the soap boxes that passed through the line to make sure they were not empty. No doubt, they worked hard and they worked fast. But when a rank-and-file employee was posed the same problem, he came out with another solution. He bought a strong industrial electric fan and pointed it at the assembly line. He switched the fan on, and as each soap box passed the fan, it simply blew the empty boxes out of the line. Simply brilliant!
Such examples of pure brilliance and simplicity are not uncommon in the software industry. Software industry that once started with low level languages, that could only be understood by research scientists and elite groups of people, has slowly started to contain an arsenal of English-like languages and real life objects that even a toddler can understand and play with. The next level might probably be a human like interface where one wouldn’t have to learn anything to be able to operate a machine or use software.
A new trend emerging in the Web world is the use of informational messages for user’s action. Earlier user was kept guessing about the action that will happen once he clicks on “Pay” or used to click multiple times; making the websites tech guys deal with the issue of multiple payments for a single purchase. Now a few websites have found out a simple yet innovative solution. They have started showing an informational message beforehand stating “clicking on this button will”, “please click on this button just once”. Result? Lesser and lesser users committed errors and thus happier customer. Simplicity at play?
At one location in California, an esteemed technology client faced a similar dilemma. The software that was developed and implemented by a third party vendor had passed UAT when the client team (about 20 users) came to know about a bug. It seems that a text field, designed to accept only numerical inputs could accept alpha numeric inputs as well. When users tried using the system they were prone to enter measurement digits and units in the same field and as a result they could no longer run comparisons or reporting software. The only obvious fix seemed to be re-involving the vendor and setting up the software labs and then making changes in the code and taking the code through the software development cycle, the estimated cost for which ran in several grand. No one really tried to put their thoughts on the option of sitting with those 20 users for a day or two and educating them about the correct use of that field at an expense of $0. Simplicity ignored?
Final Take Away: No one wants to be ignorant of the unknown. Today when there are so many things running in parallel each demanding people’s attention, one of the last priorities that people have is the need to learn and unlearn and then re-learn. The best solution is – unless warranted by technical or business constrains, stick with the obvious. One way to achieve this is to think from the perspective of a user. Other way to achieve that is to go with the simplest and most intuitive approach and hide the underlying complexities from the user through Abstraction. That can reduce the need to learn a new software or GUI and make the product readily acceptable. Not every complex situation has a complex answer. The need is to find the simplest and most reasonable solution that works. No wonder Winston Churchill once said “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge”.