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The Cult of Simplicity – Part I

A February article in the Harvard Business Review entitled Defeating Feature Fatigue (excerpted here) really struck a nerve with me. The dilemma that the authors call out in their paper is captured perfectly here:

Adding features improves the initial attractiveness of a product but ultimately decreases customers’ satisfaction with it. So what should you do? If you give people what they want, they will suffer for it later…

What goes unsaid is that if you don’t give people what they want you will suffer for it now in the form of dwindling or non-existent sales. There are wonderful examples of the feature-explosion vs. simplicity battle all around us. One of my favorites is the video that shows what the iPod packaging would look like if it had been designed by Microsoft instead of Apple. Sure it’s a parody, but what makes it so brilliant is that it is devastatingly on target. The different approaches that these two companies take in the real-world was discussed during this panel at Austin’s SxSW conference. Designers from each company provided some background on the design process for Apple’s OSX and Windows Vista (Longhorn).

Apple Designer – We focus on key things that people want to do. What’s used most frequently or is most important? Do not let edge cases get in way of major tasks. This makes it harder to do some less important things. We had a good sense of our audience and what they are trying to do so we were able to prioritize.

Microsoft Designer – Windows is definitely “wordier”. It spells things out a bit more. The Mac is beautiful if you want to do one or two things. Windows pulls all the drawers out at once and asks: “what do you want”?

What’s the best approach? The HBR authors offer 5 pieces of advice:

  1. Consider long-term customer equity
  2. Build simpler products
  3. Give consumers decision aids
  4. Design products that do one thing very well
  5. Use prototypes and product-in-use research

I find myself particularly partial to 1 & 2 from this list and recently came to realize that I am actually witnessing firsthand a fantastic case study of a company that is violating both – Adobe with its Acrobat Reader program. My frustrations with Acrobat Reader’s ever increasing bloatware have been growing for a while now and I finally realized just how bad the program had become when I read this post, titled Learn From Adobe – Don’t Annoy Your Customers.

Remember little ol’ Acrobat Reader? It used to be that you could just download and install a compact file that included the entire product. What an amazing concept…a universal file reader that would allow companies and individuals to publish read-only documents with complex formatting and layout completely intact. Just a few short years later the small file you initially download from Adobe.com now is just an installer that will manage the actual download and installation of the 27 MB worth of product for you. The Help menu for Acrobat Reader v7.0.8 actually has 12(!!!) entries in it. A far, far cry from the simple product it once was. As for Adobe’s consideration of long-term customer equity, I think that this post from Des Traynor captures the feeling quite well:

Some young children constantly demand attention, and will do incredibly annoying things until you stop and listen to them. Then they complain constantly until they get what they want. I imagine being a parent is a frustrating experience at times, but ultimately the most rewarding thing you can do.

Dealing with Adobe Acrobat is exactly like that, except it never grows up, makes you proud or leaves home. The only reward is that hopefully someday, I might not need it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a luddite and I am just as susceptible as the next person to wanting the latest bright and shiny widget v3.6.9.10. As a Product Manager I am also fully aware that there is always “just one more little feature” around the corner that key client XYZ “really needs.” At the same time, however, I find myself wanting to drink big gulps of the kool-aid being proffered by the Cult of Simplicity. Can’t I have my cake and eat it too? I believe the answer is yes and we don’t have to go any further than our friends at Adobe to see how it could be done. We will discuss one possible approach next time in Part II of this post.

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