The Less-Is-More Approach To Apps

Blaise Pascal wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter."

For me, the equivalent of a "shorter letter" with respect to business applications are those applications that are simple, elegant, and pragmatic. This is, apparently, hard to do. When you find an application that is simple, elegant and pragmatic, it's a stand out. Complexity creates huge opportunities for consultants like me to help companies implement the application. Here's an example of what I don't care for. 

I recently downloaded a new version of Tweetdeck to access Twitter from my new ultrabook computer. The user interface in the new version has changed significantly. For more than a few weeks, I've been trying to get comfortable with this newer version of Tweetdeck compared with an older version I had used, a version that I had found to be quite intuitive, simple, elegant and pragmatic. 

While I'm sure the folks at Tweetdeck are proud of their achievement, for the first time in a couple of years, I find myself stumbling around a bit to accomplish what used to be easy for me to do. It's as though core functions where tossed into a dice cup and thrown down on the bar: same dice arranged differently. Different isn't always better. 

If I were to speak with folks who created the new Tweetdeck version, I'm sure you'd hear that these enhancements were driven by users over an extended period of time. And, they would argue that they are proud of how their technology is evolving. But, I wonder if Tweetdeck users would say that they are truly satisfied with the changed user interface?  And, does Tweetdeck really care about what users think of their program?  After all, it's free. I remain a committed Tweetdeck user; I'm just not a raving fan now.

Years ago, I designed and implemented an enterprise application that was used within 3 different technology companies over a 14-year period with no modifications whatsoever. One day, I received a call from someone who knew I had developed the application who joined the third company after having been with the first. He said there was going to have a meeting to discuss whether or not enhancements were needed and he thought I should attend just so they didn't "screw anything up." I laughed. Yet, if a business application addresses the essential business needs effectively, why change the user interface? You change an application if you must, not merely because you can. 

Just as it is harder to write a short letter than a long letter, it is harder to design technology that is simple, elegant and pragmatic. I once heard Dave Hitz, a NetApp (formerly known as Network Appliance) founder, discuss the challenges of getting to the core of what their offering needed to be and resisting the temptation to add more features and functions. His point was the technology needed to thought of as an appliance: it had an essential mission to perform and it should do nothing more. He didn't want feature creep—he wanted his company to offer a simple, elegant, pragmatic solution and do it well. He spoke about the discipline and vigilance required to stick to the core of what NetApp's marketplace needed. Some of his developers weren't happy with this approach but he would not deviate. Hitz built a very successful, multi-billion dollar technology company.

Technology must simplify a problem or opportunity and bring demonstrable value. Technology must not create complexity or a burden. Create the equivalent of a short letter, not a long one. Sure, a short letter is harder to create, but, your customers will appreciate your effort.

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker and blogger who resides in Silicon Valley. His firm helps clients eliminate business execution issues that threaten profitable and/or sustainable growth. He can be reached through his website gardnerandassoc.com or Twitter @Gardner_Dave. Sign up for his weekly "Thank God It's Monday" or is Business Execution Insights newsletters here.

[Image: Flickr user jessica wilson {jek in the box}]

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