The Beauty of Simplicity

Marissa Mayer, who keeps Google's home page pure, understands that less is more. Other tech companies are starting to get it, too. Here's why making things simple is the new competitive advantage.

I'm snuggled under the covers with Jon Stewart and the remote. The "Evolution/Schmevolution" skit is funny, but it's been a long day, and I'm fading fast. The promise of technology is that I'm one click away from slumberland. I hit the power button. The picture disappears, but the TV is still glowing a creepy blue that will haunt my dreams if I don't make it go away. I try the tv button. Nothing. The cable button. Nothing. What the %$*&?? I kick off the blankets and trudge over to turn off the miserable box at the source. I can't help but wonder, as I lie there, now wide awake, how it is that all the things that were supposed to make our lives so easy instead made them more complex. Why is so much technology still so hard?

 

It is innovation's biggest paradox: We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives--more features, more function, more power--and yet we also increasingly demand that it be easy to use. And, in an Escher-like twist, the technology that's simplest to use is also, often, the most difficult to create.

Marissa Mayer lives with that conundrum every day. As Google's director of consumer Web products, she's responsible for the search site's look and feel. Mayer is a tall, blond 30-year-old with two Stanford degrees in computer science and an infectious laugh. She's also Google's high priestess of simplicity, defending the home page against all who would clutter it up. "I'm the gatekeeper," she says cheerfully. "I have to say no to a lot of people."

The technology that powers Google's search engine is, of course, anything but simple. In a fraction of a second, the software solves an equation of more than 500 million variables to rank 8 billion Web pages by importance. But the actual experience of those fancy algorithms is something that would satisfy a Shaker: a clean, white home page, typically featuring no more than 30 lean words; a cheery, six-character, primary-colored logo; and a capacious search box. It couldn't be friendlier or easier to use.

Here is how Mayer thinks about the tension between complexity of function and simplicity of design: "Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It's simple, it's elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it's got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open--and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful."

It would be lovely if Google's corporate mythology included an enchanting tale to account for the birth of this pristine marvel. But the original home-page design was dumb luck. In 1998, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were consumed with writing code for their engine. Brin just wanted to hack together something to send queries to the back end, where the cool technology resided. Google didn't have a Web master, and Brin didn't do HTML. So he designed as little as he could get away with.

The accident became an icon, of course, and a key reason the company enjoys a commanding lead. Google's design has been mimicked on the search pages of MSN and Yahoo, whose portals are messy throwbacks to the "everything but the kitchen sink" school of Web design. But they're poor imitations; according to Hitwise, Google controls 59.2% of the search market, up from 45% a year ago; MSN's share is down to 5.5% and Yahoo's is 28.8%.

No surprise that a site easy enough for a technophobe to use has caught the public imagination. Like desperate Gullivers, we're pinned down by too much information and too much stuff. By one estimate, the world produced five exabytes (one quintillion bytes) of content in 2002--the same amount churned out between 25,000 b.c. and a.d. 2000. Little wonder that Real Simple has been the most successful magazine launch in a decade, and the blogosphere is abuzz over the season's hottest tech innovation--the Hipster PDA: 15 index cards held together by a binder clip.

With Google's extraordinary trajectory and the stratospheric success of Apple's iPod--itself a marvel of simplicity and, with 20 million units sold, a staggering hit--we seem to be nearing a seminal moment. Whereas endless Sunday Styles stories may have failed to get its attention, the tech industry's interest is invariably galvanized by cash. If the equation T (technology) + E (ease of use) = $ can be proven, the time may be right for the voice of the technologically challenged who can't operate their remotes to be heard.

In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies. "Engineers say, 'Do you know how much complexity we've managed to build in here?' But consumers say, 'I don't care. It's just supposed to work!' " says Daryl Plummer, group vice president at Gartner Group.

It's often that tension--between the desire to cram in cool new features and the desire to make a product easy to use--that makes delivering on the simplicity promise so hard, particularly in companies where engineers hold sway. At Google, it's an ongoing battle. As developers come up with ever sexier services--maps! news alerts! scholarly papers!--the pressure to lard on links is fierce. Mayer holds them at bay with a smile and strict standards.

To make it to the home page, a new service needs to be so compelling that it will garner millions of page views per day. Contenders audition on the advanced-search page; if they prove their mettle--as image search did, growing from 700,000 page views daily to 2 million in two weeks--they may earn a permanent link. Few make the cut, and that's fine. Google's research shows that users remember just 7 to 10 services on rival sites. So Google offers a miserly six services on its home page. By contrast, MSN promotes more than 50, and Yahoo, over 60. And both sell advertising off their home pages; Google's is a commercial-free zone.

So why don't those sites simply hit the delete button and make their home pages more Googlesque? Hewing to the simplicity principle, it turns out, is tougher than connecting with tech support, particularly if you try it retrospectively. "Once you have a home page like our competitors'," Mayer says, "paring it back to look like Google's is impossible. You have too many stakeholders who feel they should be promoted on the home page." (MSN says more than half its customers are happy with its home page--but it's experimenting with a sleeker version called "start.com.")

Google understands that simplicity is both sacred and central to its competitive advantage. Mayer is a specialist in artificial intelligence, not design, but she hits on the secret to her home page's success: "It gives you what you want, when you want it, rather than everything you could ever want, even when you don't."

That, says Joe Duffy, founder of the award-winning Minneapolis design firm Duffy & Partners and author of Brand Apart, is a pretty good definition of good design. He quotes a famous line from the eminent designer Milton Glaser: "Less isn't more; just enough is more." Just enough, says Duffy, contains an aesthetic component that differentiates one experience from another.

It's just that holding the line on what constitutes "just enough" is harder than it looks.

It's early September, and the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, are teeming with young technorati in flip-flops and shorts. But there is calm at the MIT Media Lab, just upstairs from the List Visual Arts Center, the university's preeminent gallery. It's a fitting juxtaposition, a place where art and technology seek common ground.

"I want to figure out how you could combine simplicity, which is basic human life, with this thing--technology--that's out of control."

John Maeda runs the Media Lab's Simplicity Consortium. His goal is to find ways to break free from the intimidating complexity of today's technology and the frustration of information overload. He is a gentle, soft-spoken man, dressed elegantly in a crisp, white collarless shirt and black pants. And he is an unusual amalgam: having the mathematical wizardry of a computer geek with the soul of an artist. Indeed, in 1990, he left MIT for four years to study art. "My whole life changed," he says. "I thought, This is a great way to live." But rather than throwing over his digital life entirely, he conceived a mission. "I came back to MIT to figure out how you could combine simplicity, which is basic human life, with this thing--technology--that's out of control."

Maeda's ability to toggle back and forth between right brain and left affords him unusual insight into how we got stuck in this technological quagmire. On one level, he says, the problem is simply one of scale. Before computer technology, small things were simple; big things were more likely complex. But the microchip changed that. Now small things can be complex, too. But small objects have less room for instruction--so we get cell phones with tip calculators buried deep in submenus and user manuals the size of the Oxford English Dictionary to help us figure it all out.

Blame the closed feedback loop among engineers and industrial designers, who simply can't conceive of someone so lame that she can't figure out how to download a ringtone; blame a competitive landscape in which piling on new features is the easiest way to differentiate products, even if it makes them harder to use; blame marketers who haven't figured out a way to make "ease of use" sound hip. "It's easier," says Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, "to market technology than ease of use."

Across the river from MIT, in the Boston suburb of West Newton, Aaron Oppenheimer runs the product behavior group of Design Continuum, one of the country's preeminent design firms. He is the sympathetic counselor who gently points out that for each feature clients want to include--"Hey, if we've got a microprocessor in there, let's add an alarm clock!"--they're trading off a degree of ease of use. It's a never-ending battle. "I spend a lot of time talking clients out of adding features," he says with a sigh. "Every new feature makes things more complicated , even if you never use them."

In the past, he says, adding features usually meant adding costs. Put a sound system or power windows into a car, and you've upped the price, so you better make sure consumers really want what you're peddling. But in the digital world, that cost-benefit calculus has gone awry. "The incremental cost to add 10 features instead of one feature is just nothing," says Oppenheimer. "Technology is this huge blessing because we can do anything with it, and this huge curse because we can do anything with it."

"The market for simplicity is complex. If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

But the issue is also our conflicted relationship with technology. We want the veneer of simplicity but with all the bells and whistles modern technology can provide. "The market for simplicity is complex," says Dan Ariely, a business-school professor who is spending a year off from MIT figuring out how to quantify the value of simplicity at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

We also want our devices to talk to each other--cell phone to the Web, digital camera to printer. That requires a level of interoperability that would be difficult to attain in a perfect world, but is well nigh impossible in one where incompatibility is a competitive strategy. "In business, it's all about war," says Maeda. "I hate to sound like a hippie, but if there were just some sense of peace and love, products would be much better."

In his quiet way, Maeda hopes to right the balance between man and machine. He and his students are working on software, code-named OPENSTUDIO, that would create an "ecosystem of design"--connecting designers with customers on a broad scale. That could lead to bespoke products--a cell phone, for example, with 30 features for Junior, 3 for Gran. "You can't make the world simpler unless you can get in touch with design," he says, "and the only way you can do that is to get in touch with designers."

How do you make your company's products simpler? You can start by simplifying your company.

In the late 1990s, Royal Philips Electronics was a slow-footed behemoth whose products, from medical diagnostic imaging systems to electric shavers, were losing traction in the marketplace. By 2002, a new CEO, Gerard Kleisterlee, determined that the company urgently needed to address the dynamic global marketplace and become more responsive to consumers' changing needs.

Philips deployed researchers in seven countries, asking nearly 2,000 consumers to identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response was loud and urgent. "Almost immediately, we hit on the notion of complexity and its relationship to human beings," says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. Consumers told the researchers that they felt overwhelmed by the complexity of technology. Some 30% of home-networking products were returned because people couldn't get them to work. Nearly 48% of people had put off buying a digital camera because they thought it would be too complicated.

Strategists recognized a huge opportunity: to be the company that delivered on the promise of sophisticated technology without the hassles. Philips, they said, should position itself as a simple company. Ragnetti was dumbstruck. "I said, 'You must be joking. This is an organization built on complexity, sophistication, brainpower.' " But he and Kleisterlee responded with an even more audacious plan. Rather than merely retooling products, Philips would also transform itself into a simpler, more market-driven organization.

That initiative has been felt from the highest rungs of the organization to the lowest. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5. Even things as prosaic as business meetings have been nudged in the direction of simplicity: The company now forbids more than 10 slides in any PowerPoint presentation. Just enough, they decided, was more.

The campaign, christened "Sense and Simplicity," required that everything Philips did going forward be technologically advanced--but it also had to be designed with the end user in mind and be easy to experience. That ideal has influenced product development from conception--each new product, like the ShoqBox, an MP3 mini-boom box, must be based on a user need that's tested and validated--to packaging. Philips invited 15 customers to its Consumer Experience Research Centre in Bruges, Belgium, to see how they unpacked and set up a Flat TV. After watching people struggle to lift the heavy set from an upright box, designers altered the packaging so the TV could be removed from a carton lying flat on the ground.

While many of the new products have yet to hit the market, early results of the business reorganization, particularly in North America, have been dramatic. Sales growth for the first half of 2005 was up 35%, and the company was named Supplier of the Year by Best Buy and Sam's Club. Philips's Ambilight Flat TV and GoGear Digital Camcorder won European iF awards for integrating advanced technologies into a consumer-friendly design, and the Consumer Electronics Association handed the company 12 Innovation Awards for products ranging from a remote control to a wearable sport audio player.

Maeda, who, as a member of Philips's Simplicity Advisory Board has had a front-row seat for this transformation, is impressed. "The best indication of their sincerity is that they're embracing the concept at a management level," says Maeda. "It isn't just marketing to them. That's quite a radical thing."

Designing products that are easy to use is nothing new for Intuit, the big tax- and business-software company. Indeed, it's been the mantra since founder Scott Cook developed Intuit's first product, Quicken, back in 1983 after listening to his wife complain about writing checks and managing bills.

But even by Intuit's standards, Simple Start, a basic accounting package that debuted in September 2004, was a leap. For one thing, the target market was tiny businesses that used no software at all. "These were people who said, 'I have a simple business, and I don't want the complexity of having to learn this. I don't want to use the jargon, I don't want the learning curve, and besides, I'm afraid of it,' " says project manager Terry Hicks.

But the potential was huge: some 9 million microbusiness owners that Intuit wasn't reaching with its current line. So Hicks's team first tried a knockoff of Intuit's QuickBooks Basic, with a bunch of features turned off. Then they confidently took the product out for a test-drive with 100 potential customers.

And it bombed. It was still too hard to use, still riddled with accounting jargon, still too expensive. They realized they had to start from scratch. "We had to free ourselves and say, 'Okay, from an engineering point of view, we're going to use this code base, but we need to design it from a customer's point of view,' " says Lisa Holzhauser, who was in charge of the product's user interface.

The designers followed more customers home. They heard more complaints about complexity, but also anxiety that things in their business might be falling through the cracks. So the team distilled two themes that would guide their development: The product had to be simple, and it had to inspire confidence. Terms such as "aging reports" and "invoicing" were edited out, and the designers drew on the experience of the SnapTax division, which had hired an editor from People magazine to help translate accountant-speak into real-world language. Accounts receivable became "Money In," accounts payable, "Money Out." They pared back 125 setup screens to three, and 20 major tasks to six essentials. They spent days worrying about the packaging, knowing that to this audience, something labeled "Simple Accounting" was an oxymoron.

Above all, they subjected their work to the demanding standards of Intuit's usability lab, run by Kaaren Hanson. To get a product by her, users must be able, 90% of the time, to accomplish the tasks deemed most critical. It's a draconian standard. But "if our goal was to make it 'as easy as we can,' " Hanson says, "we wouldn't be as successful as if we had set a concrete number."

The Simple Start team thought they had nailed the user-interface problem after their third iteration of the product got rave reviews for its look and feel. But task completion results from the lab were dismal. The launch was delayed for months while the team reengineered the tools until they measured up.

The additional time was worth it. Simple Start--a product with 15 years of sophisticated QuickBooks code lurking behind an interface even a Luddite could love--sold 100,000 units in its first year on the market. Even better, reviews from target customers indicate that Intuit hit the mark. Ken Maples, owner of a tiny

flight-instruction school in Cupertino, California, summed it up: "It's easy to use. It's got everything I need and nothing more."

Ah . . . just enough. Good. Somewhere, Milton Glaser is smiling.

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. TiVo changed her life, but she can't find the mute button on her new phone. Jennifer Reingold contributed to this story.

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23 Comments

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  • Cap Boba

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  • Cap Boba

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  • Cap Boba

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