So Easy to Be Hard When Designing Technology

Ann All

Whether or not you agree with Roger Sessions' estimate of $6.2 trillion for the annual global cost of IT failures -- and plenty of people don't agree with it -- I think many if not most people can get on board with his contention that complexity is one of the primary causes of wrecked projects.


There's a growing movement toward buying and using "good enough" technology, rather than tools packed with a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles, especially in the consumer tech world. But it's been slow in coming in the enterprise. I've often wondered why. Isn't simpler almost always better? It'll be less expensive upfront as well as over the long haul, since simple is more likely to be embraced by users and should require less intensive support from IT.


Writing in a Forbes commentary, the always-smart technology observer Andrew McAfee identifies three main reasons technology products are needlessly complicated.

  • They are designed by technologists, who are naturally inclined to value complexity and don't understand that most "real people" do not. McAfee notes that Xerox kept making its copiers more complex -- until some of its engineers viewed a video of top computer scientists struggling to figure out how to use their machines.
  • It's difficult to differentiate between "need to have" features and extras, especially because product designers tend to model the features of existing products.
  • People possess an innate desire for more choices, even though experience has shown us too many choices stress us out.


There is a real demand for products that make complicated technology seem simple to the average end user. A Fast Company article from late 2007 offers Google's search engine as the quintessential example of a product that successfully hides its complexity from users. Funny story: Google's minimalist home page was an accident, in which Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin found themselves so busy writing code they didn't have time to devote to page design. After conducting research that showed users remember seven to 10 services on rival sites, Google began offering six services on its home page. It also opted not to run advertisements on its home page, as both Yahoo and MSN do.


Another example of successful simplicity, referenced near the end of the story, is Intuit's Simple Start software. After the first iterations of the product flunked usability tests, designers reduced the number of major tasks performed by the software from 20 to six and changed the wording of key terms so that "accounts receivable" became "Money In" and "accounts payable" was called "Money Out."


The article cites a 2002 Consumer Electronics Association survey in which 87 percent of respondents said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies. This has doubtless driven sales of iPods, iPhones, Flip video cameras and other devices with highly intuitive interfaces.


It also echoes McAfee's points, referencing "engineers and industrial designers who simply can't conceive of someone so lame that she can't figure out how to download a ringtone" as well as "a competitive landscape in which piling on new features is the easiest way to differentiate products, even if it makes them harder to use" and marketing professionals "who haven't figured out a way to make 'ease of use' sound hip."


Part of the problem, of course, is that companies that produce tech products are often overly complex themselves. The article mentions Royal Philips Electronics' effort to streamline itself, in which it shrank its number of different businesses from 500 to 70. The effort extended all the way down to meetings, with a ban on PowerPoint presentations containing more than 10 slides.


(Guy Kawasaki invoked the 10-slide rule -- and lots of other good ideas besides -- when I heard him speak at an event for entrepreneurs in 2007. Not surprisingly, Kawasaki is also a fan of simplicity, in product design, marketing and many other things in life.)

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