The Simplicity Thesis

The only companies or products that will succeed now are the ones offering the lowest possible level of complexity for the maximum amount of value.

A fascinating trend is consuming Silicon Valley and beginning to eat away at rest of the world: the radical simplification of everything.

Want to spot the next great technology or business opportunity? Just look for any market that lacks a minimally complex solution to a sufficiently large problem.

Take book publishing, for instance. Or website hosting. Jeff Bezos put these and other industries on notice in his annual shareholder letter, which included a self-service rallying cry against gatekeepers that perpetuate complexity and block innovation. After all, what could be simpler than provisioning servers in seconds with just a credit card and an API? But this call extends beyond Amazon’s empire to all ecosystems and products.

Any market where unnecessary middlemen stand between customers and their successful use of a solution is about to be disrupted. Any service putting the burden on end users to string together multiple applications to produce the final working solution should consider its days numbered. Any product with an interface that slows people down is ripe for extinction. And any category where a disproportionate number of customers are subsidizing their vendor’s inefficiency is on the verge of revolution.

Ultimately, any market that doesn't have a leader in simplicity soon will. And if your company doesn’t play that role, another will lead the charge.

If you’re not the simplest solution, you’re the target of one.

In the '90s and into the 2000s, an early wave of Internet services focused on simplicity through disintermediation: Amazon for shopping, eBay for selling, Google for searching. But these nascent players were limited in their approach. Sure, self-serve Internet services inevitably required some level of simplicity, but everything was just so damn new that experience didn’t meaningfully help companies differentiate. At least at first. But then companies like Yahoo and Microsoft grew into monstrosities, producing bloated technology empires.

If you’re making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption.

Today, things are different. Putting up a website is no longer novel. A clunky consumer device simply won’t be adopted when alternatives from Apple exist. And as more and more of the hard work of building infrastructure, managing computing, and installing and monetizing applications is abstracted from what necessarily goes into launching a company today, differentiation is going to come from solutions that create the best (read: simplest) experience.

This should be a red flag for any product or solution, whether digital or analog, that isn’t minimally complex. If you’re making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption. Because of the Internet’s scale and the speed of change in the world, the Innovator’s Dilemma has mutated over the years into a pernicious, methodically destructive force, leaving any company that is even the slightest bit more cumbersome, costly, or inefficient to be beat out by a newer, more streamlined competitor.

At Box, our enterprise customers are experiencing this revolution firsthand. Across organizations of every size, CIOs—generally not an aesthetics-driven group—are increasingly obsessed with implementing the simplest technology in their organizations. For years, enterprise solutions purchased for their feature checklists were later forgotten about post-deployment, underutilized, or frankly intolerable for end users. With tens of billions of dollars spent every year across infrastructure management, security, business intelligence, or analytics, it’s not surprising that a crop of simpler players are emerging, like OpsCode, Okta, Domo and GoodData, respectively. And they will inherently have a huge advantage over any of their more complex predecessors.

But while enterprise software is in dire need of a revolution, it represents just a fraction of what will be disrupted by radical simplification. Instagram’s billion-dollar acquisition and rise to 40 million users can mostly be attributed to the creation of the cleanest, most elegant, and simplest way to share photos on mobile devices. It could do this by focusing solely on nailing a brilliant experience on a single platform, while leveraging the scale and distribution offered by iPhones. SolveBio, a startup aimed at bio-scientists, is building a trivially simple solution that advances DNA and medical research, enabled by the infinite computing resources of Amazon. Spotify, arguably the fastest-growing music service today, reduced the friction of getting to unlimited music from any device down to nothing. By stepping back and questioning every assumption in music licensing and software, Spotify has built an unparalleled product and experience.

It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.

These are all examples of solutions that have hit, for today, the lowest possible level of complexity for the maximum amount of value. And that’s what makes them so disruptive to traditional players. But there are near infinite areas to attack. Particularly as problems get harder and more analog in their nature (coordinating loan applications, applying for colleges, dealing with health care providers, handling payroll) immense opportunities await the startup ecosystem.

So what do you do about it?

Whether you’re the incumbent or a startup, how do you build sufficiently simple solutions to complex problems? By abstracting as much of the work that’s actually going on from what’s required of the consumer, and maniacally slashing any process or barrier that prevents consumers from getting the best possible experience. It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.

Now, this isn’t an excuse for solutions to accomplish less. The irony of simplicity is that it invariably lets you do more. Simplicity isn’t about giving up any value—it’s a movement around designing technology or products thoughtfully to make them substantially more useful and attainable. Some of the simplest solutions on the market are equally the most advanced—Square beats out any other form of retail payment service; Nest offers the most compelling and powerful thermostat ever invented.

Here are just a few ways to get started in achieving minimum complexity:

  1. Think end to end.  Simplicity relates to the entire customer experience, from how you handle pricing to customer support.
  2. Say no.  Kill features and services that don’t get used, and optimize the ones that do.
  3. Specialize.  Focus on your core competency, and outsource the rest—simplicity comes more reliably when you have less on your plate.
  4. Focus on details.  Simple is hard because it’s so easy to compromise; hire the best designers you can find, and always reduce clicks, messages, prompts, and alerts.
  5. Audit constantly.  Constantly ask yourself, can this be done any simpler? Audit your technology and application frequently.

The next thing to understand is that simplicity is a relative, moving target. The accelerating speed of innovation ensures that you’re never the simplest solution for long. Any delay in staying ahead of the curve can give way to a new disruptor that brings new efficiencies or creates new elegance because of an enabling technology or social change. Original category simplifiers like PayPal and Intuit have fallen prey to more nimble and disruptive competitors that have taken advantage of their current complexity and weaknesses.

Companies that will win in the long term are those that can continue to simplify experience while simultaneously tackling harder and harder problems. Sure, it’s novel and powerful that Square can accept payments for a 10-person retail store, but when they start to do it for Gap, the game is radically changed. Amazon succeeds by continuing to charge into all areas of infrastructure delivery—consistently launching new tools and platforms that would otherwise cost developers an arm and a server closet, all with the same focus on abstraction and simplification.

When technology was inherently and unavoidably complex, it was forgivable that solutions weren't elegant and simple. It was at one time understandable that finding and visiting a new doctor could take weeks, or searching for enterprise information wasn’t successful. But with a myriad of elegant and simple solutions entering the market, users are learning to expect far more from their products. Simplicity has become a virus that will either destroy you or catapult you to the front of the market.

—Author Aaron Levie is the CEO and cofounder of Box.

Related: To Create Something Exceptional, Do Sweat The Small Stuff

[Image: Flickr user Gane Kumaraswamy]

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12 Comments

  • matt_mysimpleads

    I wholeheartedly agree that the end user is looking for something that quickly and easily gets the job done. Problem is that the decision makers in enterprise settings still seem to focus on features vs price. Meaning they would pay for product x with 10 features vs a simpler product y with 6 features.

    They still don't have the end user in mind when they make these decisions. When I created my startup at mysimpleads.com it was designed to focus just on the core set of features and make it very quick and simple to use. There are lots of ad servers with a bazillion features, but they have become so complex that the learning curve can be huge. Stop adding features and talk to your customers and see what they actually need.

  • ThatGuyLam Tang

    Interesting that Box.net was very obviously a part of the article. My own experience with that product was overall very satisfying but not without glitches (i.e. file limitations for imbedding, Mac compatibility). I'm sure your people are on it, though, Mr Levie.

  • Sanjiv Karani

    Embedded link to blog post The “Art” of Complexity and the “Smart” of Simplicity (Part
    1) was dropped when the comment was posted. You can access it at http://bit.ly/KpOENS.

  • Sanjiv Karani

    Aaron, an excellent post. The quest of simplification goes through complexification. I also agree with Nathan's point about differentiating between simplicity and clarity. My recent post on The “Art” of Complexity and the “Smart” of Simplicity (Part
    1) provides additional insights.

  • Nathan Shedroff

    Mr. Levie, like many, I'm afraid you've confused simplicity with clarity. Nobody wants a simple life with few choices--especially those preconfigured by others. None of Apple's products are simple  in any way. We we want and what Apple's products deliver is a tremendous amount of functionality, and the ability to customize the experience, but in an exceedingly clear way.

    Simple is a life where you have few options. It's a map that only has the most obvious information on it--one that makes no allowances for unforeseen circumstances (like a road under construction). Simple is "one size fits all" and "any color you want as long as it's black." Simple delivers little or no context and answers that don't fit our lives.

    Clear is a path to a new destination that doesn't delete every landmark or context that might help orient us and, thus, get us there. Clear is alternate views that allow those of us who are visual, spatial, readers, or more comfortable with speech to learn, search, make, and understand in ways that make more sense than the "average." Clear isn't eliminating features from systems but arranging them to be found and available JUST when they're needed in a context that is natural and "obvious."

    There really isn't anything simple about Square, for example--not in the backend technology, the ecosystem, the partnerships, nor even the front-end. What makes it appear simple is that it is so CLEAR (and obvious to many, though not all) that we think it's simple and even natural. It is neither and THAT is the magic.

  • Seuils Labs

    Our lifetime is more limited than any other resource.

    In other words, if you can help people optimize their lifetime, and if you can do that better than others, then you are in a position to deliver a value which can be considered as "ultimate".

    Now, and very much counter-intuitively, I purport that in order to achieve - or predict opportunities for - lifetime optimization, another unit of measurement is required, eg. other than Time.

    I develop this theory further in this video "From Time To Gesture - Lifetime Optimization with Theory Of Doorways" (http://SEUILS.org/TOD).

  • jhon foods

    its been wonderful to visit and read the post nice post thanks for sharing.....

  • Thomas O'Hearn

    Absolutely a good lesson. Like we said in the military - KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. There's always time to add more, build complexity and functionality. Get the idea out there, don't keep chasing the perfect idea - nowadays a good idea is definitely good enough. ;)

    I've had to keep this in mind often with my startup at NE1UP.com - while building the social network aspect is complicated, what users really wanted was to connect, and using KISS, what would have taken 6mos developing, took two weeks.

    All the best!

    Thomas @NE1UP:twitter 

  • Stacie Rabinowitz

    This is a great take on innovative new products.  My consulting firm discovered Box after quite a bit of headache and annoyance trying to figure out how to post documents to our LinkedIn Group, The Business Growth and Complexity Management Network (
    http://www.linkedin.com/groups... ).  It has been a lifesaver, and such a simple, elegant solution.  Interestingly enough, we apply principles very similar to the five Mr. Levie discusses here not only to helping companies find new areas for growth, but also to helping them simplify their internal processes.  The principles apply not only to new products to help customers complete a task, but also to a company's own internal tasks. 

    Stacie Rabinowitz
    Consultant
    www.wilsonperumal.com

  • Daniel Herr

    Fantastic article. I don't know where in the process Steve
    Jobs adopted the idea, but his simplicity approach has definitely permeated the
    thought process today, "Simple can be harder than complex: You have to
    work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in
    the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

    Thanks,

    -Dan
    DanHerr.com