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Why We’ve Made 'Simple' Our Mandate for Product Design



POWERSHiFTER's J.P. Holecka on how to tame the enemy known as complexity, improving profits, liveability, and satisfaction for your products and services

Why We’ve Made 'Simple' Our Mandate for Product Design
There’s nothing worse than needless complexity.

Our clients come to us with big ideas - and big ideas are often intricate or cumbersome, and sometimes both; so we help them land on the right ideas. What I’ve seen time and time again is that the right idea is always the simplest.

That doesn’t mean it’s the most obvious, or the one that takes the least work. Quite the opposite. And that’s because there’s a critical difference between simple and simplistic.

Simplistic is basic. Simplistic means that the minimum amount of thought went into a concept, and the minimum amount of effort went into its actualisation. It’s ironic, but simplistic ideas often yield the most complex products. Without a rigorous process to help arrive at the right model, the final result is clunky and convoluted.

“Simple” is when a solution is so seamless that users barely even notice it — yet behind the scenes, it’s engineered to perfection through cycles of planning, designing, testing, executing, and iterating. Albert Einstein once said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.” I couldn’t agree more.

Think of the user experiences we take for granted in the products we use daily — the Google Search engine is a good example of this. A simple white box with a single bar for text — which, when a keyword is entered, returns exactly the results you’re looking for. There’s a lot of tech and thinking that goes into that, but the page has no distractions, no tricks. A few links, but nothing more than that. It’s a far cry from earlier search engines such as Yahoo, where you had to spend a long time navigating your way through nested pages and categories.

Or consider Google Translate’s Word Lens. It’s pretty amazing to be able to read foreign languages in real time just by holding your phone to a word; to see it transcribed before your eyes in a similar font and colour. The elegance of these solutions masks the elaborate algorithms working below the surface. It’s as simple as possible without being simplistic.

And then there’s Apple. iPhones are the epitome of simple, user-centred design, with an intuitiveness that covers the complexity of its engineering. We also see user-centred design in services such as Amazon Prime, which pioneered the one-click buy.

It’s no coincidence that these tech giants — Google, Apple, Amazon — are so successful. They take complex ideas and turn them into simple products, services, and solutions, which means less friction, more conversions, fewer abandoned carts, and higher revenue. More and more, it seems, simplicity is table stakes for brands both big and small.

We can see this in the Simplicity Index. This shows that a portfolio of brands with the simplest experiences outperforms all other major indexes on the stock market by over 400%. In short, the ROI of simplicity is real.

All businesses understand that their products and services are their key moneymakers, but not all of them seem to grasp the fact that they’re losing users — and money — when those products and services have extraneous layers of complexity. In the long run, their returns are just not as great as they would be with a simple experience and design.

For a decade, POWERSHiFTER has helped organisations overcome these challenges. But as we set our sights on the decade ahead, I think it’s important to clearly articulate our commitment to simplicity. I like to say that we’re doers, not storytellers. But now it’s time to talk the walk.

And for me, that starts with John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity.

The book was written over ten years ago, well before I launched POWERSHiFTER, yet its principles are as applicable now as they were then, and they’ll still hold true tomorrow. To me, that shows that good design — simple design — endures even as trends come and go. It’s the heart and soul of digital technology.

That’s why POWERSHiFTER’s six lenses of simplicity — the frames through which we view all challenges and opportunities — are variations on Maeda’s ten laws. They are as follows:

Reduce: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
Organise: Organisation makes a system of many appear fewer.
Time: Savings in time feel like simplicity.
Discoverability: Making things easy to find makes things feel simple.
Context: When we know the “why”, we can connect the dots and make leaps in logic easier.
Knowledge: The more we know, the simpler things are.

Noted artist and teacher Hans Hofmann once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary, so that the necessary may speak.” At POWERSHiFTER, that’s exactly what we strive to do.