Saturday, October 15, 2011

KISS - Keep it Simple Stupid! (The Complexity of Simplicity)

When I was in school I remember my mom telling me to clear up my table which was always cluttered. Arrange your books, toys etc. It would be easy to search. Very simple straight forward thinking!

Imagine the plight when you cannot find what you want – it is physically and mentally exhausting. Where is it? Where else can it be? It is not surprising that someone has theorised that that clutter is actually emotionally exhausting too. As humans are constantly scanning their environment, the more the clutter the more the physical and mental power needed to process.

In the present day world how I wish everyone followed mom’s thinking. It’s greed. What the &%*$?  Humans want more and more. Be it money, be it food, be it gadgets or be it anything. And this thought has percolated into all parts of life. From the simple water tap to the technologically superior television. I have had instances where we had TVs with 200 channels but we do not use more than 30. I look at the TV remote and wonder if this is from outer space. Look at the PC keyboard and I notice I don’t use many functions as I don't understand them.

Why and how is it that all the things that were supposed to make our lives so easy instead made them more complex? Why is so much technology still so hard? And the more we want – the more complex it gets.

Interestingly the consumer behaviour polls say something unique.  In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies.

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. Consumers told the researchers that they felt overwhelmed by the complexity of technology. Some 30% of home-networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work. Nearly 48% of people had put off buying a digital camera because they thought it would be too complicated.

This is probably the greatest human – innovation paradox:  We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives--more features, more uses, more functions, more power, more of XYZ --and yet we also increasingly demand that it be easy to use. It's a conundrum--between the need to load it with arguably cool features and the need to make it simple to use. How paradoxical it sounds when the sales pitch harps on “fully loaded” (features –yes! complexity – full loaded!)

One of the problems is that the engineers, marketing men and designers operate in silos that make delivering on the simplicity promise so hard. They are far removed from the demands of the customer or as in many instances one department holds sway over the other.

You can also blame it on arrogance. My son cannot figure out why both my wife and I go to him for some tech issues in our PC. He has an air – oh that’s simple, you could not get that?! And to be honest, I do it with my mom too. Some of the engineers and marketing folks cannot believe that are people who have problems even finding out the reset button on a mobile phone.  Some find it difficult to even use a Blackberry Messenger.


  • Blame it on competition wherein the order of the day is ‘mine is better than yours’. ‘My TV has more buttons on the remote than yours!!
  • Blame it on technology where the incremental cost to add features is minimal – thereby adding a little more becomes the order of day.
  • Blame it on a competitive landscape in which piling on new features is the easiest way to differentiate products, even if it makes them harder to use.
  • Blame marketers who don’t think "ease of use” is a USP.  It is easier for a marketer to market technology over ease of use. It’s sexy to talk technology; I don’t see any marketer saying it is sexy to talk ease of use.
  • I think technology itself is to be blamed for this. The chips and transistors get smaller and smaller making themselves more complex.

However there are few brands whose hallmark is simplicity and that according to me that has been the key success factor.

Google - The technology that powers Google as complex as it can get. I am told that in a few nano seconds, the software solves an equation of more than 500 million variables to rank 8 billion Web pages by importance. And  in the actual experience  all you get is a clean, white home page, typically featuring no more than 30 lean words; a cheery, six-character, primary-colored logo; and a simple  search box. It couldn't be friendlier or easier to use.

Compare this with its competition namely Yahoo & MSN/ Bing. Google's design has been mimicked on the search pages of MSN and Yahoo, whose portals are messy throwbacks to the "everything but the kitchen sink" school of Web design. ( However the Bing standalone page copies Google – imitation is the best form of flattery). The popularity of Google pretty much rests its case.

Apple – According to me, if I were to credit Jobs for anything it would be ‘ease of use’ in the Apple products.  Starting with the Mac to the now ubiquitous iPad, simplicity has been at the forefront at all levels. The product design – simple, clean & classy. User Interface – simple, common sensical and easy to use. Add ons – Easy to connect and again easy to use. For example – the mouse has only one clickable surface! (And Apple actually created the mouse).

There are other examples of too. Philips changed itself from an organizational and product perspective. Its famous campaign, christened "Sense and Simplicity," required that everything Philips did going forward be technologically advanced--but it also had to be designed with the end user in mind and be easy to use experience. Philips invited 15 customers to its Consumer Experience Research Centre in Bruges, Belgium, to see how they unpacked and set up a Flat TV. After watching people struggle to lift the heavy set from an upright box, designers altered the packaging so the TV could be removed from a carton lying flat on the ground.

How do you make your company's products simpler? The erstwhile CEO, Gerard Kleisterlee actually started by simplifying the company in 2002. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5. Even in mundane things like business meetings have had a simplicity touch: The company forbids more than 10 slides in any PowerPoint presentation.

Often, when hearing about compelling user experiences, people immediately associate it with flashy productions with lots of visible bells and whistles.  And that’s a problem.

In a complicated world getting even more complicated, great user experiences don’t have to be flashy with infinite buttons on a remote to innumerable icons on your PC screen.  They need to be easy and obvious (as a reminder, feel free to go visit Google or Twitter).   Choose the right approach for what your user wants and needs and everyone will be happier and less distressed.

Oh! I am reminded of a phrase from the past  - KISS - Keep It Simple Stupid!

10 comments:

prakash said...

As Einstein once said " simplicity is the most complex thing i have seen." seems to be true... i guess we human beings are perfect example to this paradox.Good examples to make the point.

virgovim said...

Wow, this is actually a complex issue :)

So "complexity" is not just characterised by the number of options available, but also the quality of the options offered and perhaps even more importantly, how these options are "used" or "executed".

I think the sweet spot for democratizing technology and enhancing mass appeal and adoption lies somewhere in the nexus between offering all of the complex options possible while simplifying the quality of the user interface required to access and execute those options.

Case in point is the iPod and iPad. The iPod didn't really take off until iTunes was integrated with it but once it did, suddenly everybody wanted - no "needed" - their entire music library in their pocket. Strangely, that was the time when people started ooohing about how few buttons there were on the iPod compared to all other MP3 players of the time. For the 2 years preceding the launch of iTunes, despite offering the same clean, Zen-like user interface, the iPod did not really take off and nobody seemed to bother about how easy it was to use. What's the point of "easy to use" if the content is just not there? (Tablet PC makers take note...)

Ditto with the iPad - the confluence of intuitive user-friendliness and the App Store with thousands of apps created a new category of PCs almost overnight.

Most of us - if not all - think much faster than we act. So it stands to reason that the future of technology is to shorten the distance between thought and action as much as possible. Apple has taken the first step in that direction by pioneering multi-touch technology and building it into everything from the iPod to iPad to iPhones and Macs. (No need to press a pre-defined series of keys/buttons, just think and use your fingers to execute on a trackpad/screen). The new ultrabooks and notebooks being released in the markets are also incorporating similar multi-touch capabilities. Don't hold your breath though - Microsoft hasn't equipped Windows to handle too much of it yet.

I would even say Siri (the new voice-controlled functionality in iPhone 4S) is the next step in this journey. What's next?

But getting back to your main points - I agree we are demanding more and more. It's a vicious cycle actually - we search and find thereby we generate more information which in turn requires more computing power, which generates ever more combinations and alternatives, allowing for greater customisation...you see where this is going. Multiple chickens and many more eggs.

And to top it all off, we are incessantly told that we are each "unique" individuals; I know I don't always want to do what the rest of the crowd is doing; I want the world in doses that I am comfortable with, on my own terms and preferably with a better experience than the last time/person. After all, I am "me", different from "you".

Are we then surprised that it's a complex world?

Vejay Anand S said...

Thanks Prakash!

Thanks Vimal! Very lucid and thought provoking comments.

- Greed is what drives us and I believe that we do not want to draw the line. The sweet spot is becoming larger and for a tech/ mktg/ design person it is difficult to pin point - not unless you are Steve Jobs!

I respect Jobs for the fact that he made it as simple as it can get. More intuitive. In fact simplicity was his forte from that the fact he always used object oriented programming.

I remember the earlier ipods and even then the sheer use of was never questionable but the sheer usage happened only once itunes was integrated.

Undoubtedly we are all selfish! Its I, me, myself

ashta said...

hi Anand,
nice..
"Biggest truths are the simplest"
i rememebr an add about Gandhiji, a small boy drawing Gandhiji,few lines with pecil, and at the the bottom, it says
"Biggest troths are the simplest"
The more you think on any subject, the more simple it becomes.
Thers is also a nice saying,
"you cannot be first because you do not know!"
best regards
kunjunni

tuhin said...

It was wonderful explanation with good examples. Buddy keep going

tuhin said...

Excellent writeup with excellent examples. Continue giving us these insights

Vejay Anand S said...

Thanks a lot Tuhin

Shweta said...

Superb reminder of the fact that simplicity is beautiful....! Lovely write up Vejay! I am going to catch up on ur older posts too...soon!

Vejay Anand S said...

Thanks Shweta. There is a lot of beauty in simplicity in the food we offer to the houses we live in

Arun said...

Hi Vejay, well written, (and I see you have been prolific - I am a late visitor to the blog) and the way your blog is structured, I see you have adapted simplicity here too :-)
KISS as a concept we grapple with regularly (as a web design team) - invariably clients want every feature on their website!

My two-bit: to try and keep it simple, you need: a) a good understanding of UI, and b)access to solid tech. If you look at the examples of Google and Apple, both these points are very evident - while there is premium tech driving the 'engines', clearly both of them also understand user behaviour inside-out.

Very few others have managed to get a sync between the these two elements.

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