Keep it Simple, or you’re Stupid

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Have you ever made the mistake of making something too complex?

I remember when I was about 12 years old at school and we did a project called “Make a Million.” The idea was the children had to team up in pairs and then run a project that, during break times, would create revenue. Looking back, it was a great way for the school to instill some business and entrepreneurial skills into us as kids.

However, my project didn’t go down so well. Whereas some teams sold posters of clipart that they printed from their computer, or sold a set of 5 penalty kicks, or charm bracelets that they had made, my business partner and I decided to make a complex game which was a mix of snakes and ladders fused with monopoly. Suffice to say that when break time came, we normally sold one run on the game as it took the whole break to play it. But even then, people were reluctant to play because it was, well, just so complex! It was easy to buy a poster or kick a ball, but this was just too much.

Thus it was here that I learnt my first business lesson. Keep it quick, simple, and scaleable. I’d like to tell you that I learnt my lesson there and then, but my perfectionist mindset has struggled with this one for a long time as I have often defaulted back to building the perfect system as opposed to a profitable one, or even a useable one!

The simple one wins. Ask Dropbox.

I read a similar, more grown up version of the same story on Quora. Isaac Hall, co-founder of Syncplicity discusses why Dropbox is more popular than other tools that have similar and often better functionality. What he boiled it down to was simplicity. It just works. No tweaking necessary. (You can read his answer here, just click on “change log” to see his full response.) The most pertinent part of it was this:

In the end, it really came down to one incredibly genius idea: Dropbox limited its feature set on purpose. It had one folder and that folder always synced without any issues — it was magic. Syncplicity could sync every folder on your computer until you hit our quota. (Unfortunately, that feature was used to synchronize C:Windows for dozens of users — doh!) Our company had too many features and this created confusion amongst our customer base. This in turn led to enough customer support issues that we couldn’t innovate on the product, we were too busy fixing things.

After I left Syncplicity, I ran into the CEO of Dropbox and asked him my burning question: “Why don’t you support multi-folder synchronization?” His answer was classic Dropbox. They built multi-folder support early on and did limited beta testing with it, but they couldn’t get the UI right. It confused people and created too many questions. It was too hard for the average consumer to setup. So it got shelved.

I like this – Dropbox could have multiple folders, but they don’t, because people just don’t get it.

Making things simple is about making sure people get it. It’s realising that too many options paralyzes people (which one should I do?), that asking for settings scares people (what if I get it wrong?), that an unclear benefit deters people (why spend my time on this?)

Starting with simple

My friend Darren Smith is an expert in user design and experience and he tells me that when it comes to design there is a general rule to ensure that no matter how advanced a design gets its core remains simple, ensuring that any further levels of complexity advance the feature set without compromising the simplicity of the core.

This useful point helps us with something that Brian Driggs and I have been discussing on the subject of making meaning and also writing SMART email. When it comes to building a platform for people to live their lives on, it needs to be simple with optional further levels of complexity. As to how that looks, I’m not sure – but I’m up for discussing it.

5 ways to keep it simple

So what are the main lessons here? My main points, in contrast to my failures with my efforts to make a million at school, would be:

  1. It can be explained in a sentence. My game couldn’t.
  2. You can look at it and know what it is. You can look at a poster and know that you buy it. But when you look at a peice of card with directions scribbled on, it’s not that obvious.
  3. You don’t need a manual. What is good about the iPhone is when you get it, it’s ready. No configuration. This isn’t the case with many phones that I’ve tested!
  4. It’s quick. The great thing about Dropbox is that you install and it’s done, and you can use it right away. Again, no more configuration.
  5. Any complexity is guided step by step. I loved playing this pinball game that I downloaded on my iPad a while ago that taught me how to use it step by step in a test run. This isn’t anything new, but it’s amazing how many platforms lack this and just expect you to figure it out through trial and eror.

So those are my 5 lessons. Now over to you:

Your Leading Thoughts

  • Thinking offline, how do we take the platforms that we are building and ensure they are simple, with further levels of complexity?
  • When does simple harm you?

Photo courtesy of visualpanic

Archived Comments

  • http://twitter.com/crispinheath Crispin Heath

    Same can be said of the BlackBerry. It does one thing really well. That’s why it endures.

  • / Scott Gould

    Urm, and what one thing would that be?

    ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/Robin_Dickinson Robin Dickinson

    When does simple harm you?

    Oversimplifying ‘Gordian Knot’ type problems like poverty, teen suicide, dysfunctional health-care systems and global economic meltdowns can win votes but distract from making solid progress.

  • http://twitter.com/RobinDickinson Robin Dickinson

    Just changed my Twitter handle in DISQUS.

    :)

  • / Scott Gould

    Robin – VERY good example.

    (And congrats on the Twitter handle. Also I love your simpler home page

    :-)

  • http://twitter.com/RobinDickinson Robin Dickinson

    Thanks, mate. Slow but steady progress to simplify things.

    ;)

  • / Scott Gould

    It is. I realised recently just how complex I make things – simple is work, but highly rewarding and beneficial work

  • http://twitter.com/RobinDickinson Robin Dickinson

    “Simple is work” is so true. IMO, most complication online comes from either a) laziness or b) loving the sound of one’s own voice.

  • / Scott Gould

    Amen to that. It IS laziness. Simple needs refinement to get things down to the core. We’ve been discussing somethings for 18 months now and are stil refining them!

  • http://waqasaday.wordpress.com/ Waqas Ali

    Very true, and Google also took advantage of being simple and easy to use. They started with very few links on their search homepage. Where as, Yahoo and MSN had 40+ on their search homepage, so users found it easy to use Google and recommended Google to new people.

    Another point to be noted is that many time people work hard to make things look simple but so much editing interrupt simplicity.

    :)

  • / Scott Gould

    Totally. You must know what the core asset – the main thing is – and then present that in the simplest, easiest to find way

  • http://www.adrianswinscoe.com/blog/ Adrian Swinscoe

    Hi Scott,
    I’ve only just read your post and funnily enough have just found some research on this very subject and have posted it on my blog. The reason being is that I love simplicity as I think that simple things have real beauty, art and grace in them. That’s not to say that simplicity is easy. Not at all. In fact, I think Charles Mingus said it best when he said: Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

    Adrian

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Adrian

    Love it – I’ll check out your blog!

11th March, 2011

2 Comments

  1. I love this write up. Simple is key. I’m in the process of building my website and keeping it as user friendly possible is always a huge topic of discussion. Scott it looks like I’ll be coming to you for help when needed! Great work!

    Reply

    • Welcome Chi Chi!!! I look forward to hearing more about your site!

      Reply

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