Keep it Simple, Stupid

What is it about the human race that while we all apparently prefer ‘a simple life’ we delight in adding layers of complexity to everything?

Much to nobody’s surprise, I imagine, a recent McKinsey article, “Consumer Electronics Gets Back to Basics” showed that something like 2/3rds of consumers valued simplicity and price over a more comprehensive set of features. And yet, product after product is designed to have more features than its predecessor – generally at an incrementally higher price or, at best, the same price.

Just look at today’s ‘bloatware’ as an example. Remember the days when Bill Gates declared that “640KB ought to be enough for anybody” referring to the, then, new PC’s maximum memory capacity? Nowadays, you’re lucky to get away with less than three thousand times that much (2GB)! And yet, how many of us use more than 10% of the features available in today’s ‘productivity suites?’ I don’t, and many consider me a ‘power user.’

Oh, and don’t believe that the complexity is simply as a result of more capacity – people have been calling for simpler PCs for decades. In a Newsweek interview back in 1995, Oracle Chairman Larry Ellison said that the PC was too complicated and difficult to use then, predicting the PC would soon be replaced by simpler desktop devices – the ‘network computer,’ a no-frills computer/terminal that performs basic chores easily and simply and sells for less than $500. Perhaps Oracle’s recent purchase of Sun Microsystems will enable him to move us all in that direction some 15 years later: Sun already sells this type of device – they call it a Sun Ray.

The big surprise for many vendors last year was the Netbook. Initiated by Asus, this basic notebook PC really set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. The form factor was first tried in the mid 90s with a notable lack of success (it was called the sub-notebook in those days), so there was a healthy dose of scepticism when it was announced last year. Acer, as the first major multinational vendor to see the opportunity, quickly produced its own line of netbooks and gained enormous market-share as a result: seeing a significant increase in unit sales last year, just as the downturn was biting most companies. Here was a classic case of people wanting simplicity – what a pity, then, that the software was not also available in ‘Lite’ versions, meaning that many early adopters of netbooks ended up returning to the larger, more powerful machines that could handle the software workload.

But it’s not just in PCs that simplicity is the watchword. A couple of years ago a start-up company, Pure Digital Technologies, introduced a simple, one-button solid state video camera that runs on a couple of AA batteries. This device, the Flip, quickly grabbed 14% of the US video camera market surpassing all but the long-time market leader in sales. It’s a wonderful little camera and perfect for recording those ‘moments’ of life – I know, I got one soon after launch and swear by it. Interesting, then, that Cisco acquired the company a few months ago – is simplicity to be Cisco’s driver now?

This desire for simplicity is evident in many other areas of life, too – look at how people are embracing simpler airline and hotel offerings: companies offering easy-to-use services that do what’s needed at a reasonable price. The same goes for other products, like the success of Tide Basic laundry detergent.
And here’s the key – to succeed, products and services must be well-made, practical, offer the set of basic features that people need (read: market research is critical) and be seen as offering great value. Properly done, this can be achieved at increased margins to the over-featured products we’ve become used to, so increasing shareholder satisfaction along with customer satisfaction.

As the saying goes, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Isn’t this what we all want?

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One response to “Keep it Simple, Stupid

  1. I completely agree. Another fine example is the Apple iPhone. I have a love-hate relationship with mine, due to the fact that while it’s great, even revolutionary, in some ways, it lacks some of the basic features any mobile phone should have – the ability to send someone else a contact by text, the ability to send multiple people the same message, and the ability to batch edit contacts/texts etc. I won’t even get started on its alarm clock… I’m told part of the problem are the designers – they want to spend their time working on the ‘cool’ features, not the simple, boring ones…

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