Simplicity Sells

There is a series of discussions that occurs every year where a 1,000 people are invited to discuss ideas in Technology, Entertainment, and Design or TED. The people who are invited to this roundhouse of discussions are simply some of the most intelligent, outspoken, maverick and iconic people that exist. To be invited to even attend the conference alone is an honor that many people would love to have, to speak at one of these events is an even more prestigious honor. TED has never been broadcast to the public, the talks that were given were always reserved for those 1,000 people who attended that year. However this year, approximately 2 or 3 months ago the talks were and still are slowly being released to the public.

This is wonderful, because I feel that all knowledge should be released to the public. (I’ll probably blog more about this on a later date.) The TED talks cover so many different degrees and backgrounds that they are really fascinating to anyone no matter what you are interested in. This is going to be the first in many posts discussing several different TED talks that I will post from time to time.

My first post in this series is going to cover David Pogue‘s TED talk in 2006 discussing the state of software and technology in general from the point of view of the user. David Pogue’s basic theme is simplicity sells, not only does it sell but it sells wonderfully. More and more companies seem to travel away from this idea especially for software companies. Yes, I would honestly say that there are features that are needed and more features is not necessarily right off hand a bad idea inherently. The idea is not so much adding in too many features, rather it is making those features easy to use, and easy to access. There are so many examples of products that feature overkill it would be ridiculous to list all of them. All of you can think of a product that had more features than you knew what to do with, the easiest example is Microsoft’s Office Word. A great product in the sense that it works, it is powerful, it allows you to write many different types of documents and to do so much editing and polish to a document it is ridiculous.

That is the problem, it is ridiculous. Have you ever opened up all of the tool bars in Word and seen just how many there are? Just for reference you eliminate pretty close to 50% of the screen with tool bars. How often have you ever wanted to edit or write Visual Basic in a Word document, probably not all that often, but you can. Or has anyone ever sent an e-mail through Outlook using Word. People that I know who use both programs on a daily basis do not use this tool, why? Simple, it’s easier to use the tool that was designed for e-mails, Outlook. Speaking of Outlook the calendar that is integrated with it is great, but how do I make an exportable calendar that still retains some security features on it? I know you can do it, but I once spent 2 hours trying to find out how to do before I said forget it and instead used a different tool that I was actually able to find out how to export a calendar with security features in the calendar.

Simplicity isn’t a crazy idea that is hard to discover, it is however an idea hard for any hard core geek which is 99% of the people designing and deciding what the next iteration of a program will be to move away from more features. I do not want to say that extra features are wrong and that when a program is released that they should not put in any extra features. But, and this is key, features must be integrated intelligently. Not only should they be easy to use, find, and manipulate but they should also be useful. If a poll was taken how many people even know about the VB tool bar in Word, then how many fewer people actually use it, perhaps even more telling would be how many people used it on anything approaching a monthly basis. I wouldn’t mind seeing the numbers on that.

A tool should be designed to help the user not hinder them. When tools keep piling on top of each other, that is a hindrance. Design simplicity into your products and watch how more people not only will use your product but will also use more features and recommend other people use it as well. For instance YouTube, is simplicity in action. Unlike many other video sharing sites which require the file to be trans-coded into a certain type before they will accept it, YouTube accepts all files and does the trans-coding themselves. This is important because for the majority of people in the world, trans-coding sounds like voodoo. YouTube, just works, because of this it is used and people recommend it to other people. Most people don’t even know what a file name extension is much less how to change a file from one type to another. YouTube hides this important and necessary step from the user and because of this the process of uploading a movie to the Internet becomes painless.

You must always aggregate your program/product to the lowest common denominator whatever and whoever that may be. The less steps involved, the clearer the steps, the more user friendly the program, the better the user experience will be and that ultimately that is what will generate sales and accolades, not the number of features built into the program.

Justin Yost is a full-time Software Engineer and a part time educator. A graduate of Texas Tech University with a bachelor's degree in computer science, Justin relishes programming and learning more about anything and everything. When not working, Justin occasionally gives talks at the local PHP Meetup. In his free time, Justin enjoys backpacking and reading science fiction books.


Posted in Technology
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