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Keep It Simple

Time famine is a well documented trend that's driving a plethora of innovations. One of my favourites is the guy on eBay who is selling pre-loaded iPods to cash-rich, time-poor individuals. Presumably it won't be too long before this person discovers market segmentation and you'll be able to buy iPods pre-loaded with specific bands or genres of music.

Other interpretations of this trend include a move towards portability by food companies like Mars who are keen to get a "share of mouth" from people who no longer have time to sit down and eat (in the US, 15% of all meals are now eaten in cars).

Take newspapers. One reason why they're are a declining market is because people no longer have the time to sit down for breakfast to read them. A solution is to change the method of delivery to something more in line with modern lifestyles and routines. Hey, presto, online newspapers. Some of these e-papers allow you to customise what you receive. Not quite the Daily Me, but it's getting closer. Or if you prefer your news made from trees there are still several ways to save time. If you live in Switzerland there's 20 Minuten, a newspaper that can be read in less than 20 minutes. In the UK — as well as in the US — there's a magazine called The Week that summarizes the top stories from the previous week's newspapers.

Too Much Information (TMI) is a close relative of time famine. Some people are now so overloaded with information during the day that they can't cope with an overly long menu at night. So in London there's a restaurant called Clark's with barely any choice at all. They do most of the thinking and all the cooking for you. Salt restaurant in New York works along similar lines. Indeed, it can only be a matter of time before someone opens a restaurant with absolutely no choice at all — they'll choose all the food and all the wine for you.

TMI also has a couple of distant cousins: Too Much Choice (TMC) and Too Many Options (TMO). Again, these trends are spawning a host of new products and services centerd on the need for edited choice. Examples include retailers using lists of the 100 best books of all time and magazines writing about 50 places to see before you die. There's even a shop in London called Microzine where the merchandise is "curated" by the owner and a store called Hype in Sydney that searches the world for the very latest and greatest sneakers.

Why is all this happening? Basically it's because trends like speeding up, customization, consumer choice, and instant communication spawn counter trends. People no longer have the time (or the energy) to make informed decisions based upon a rigorous examination of every alternative — so they're paying other people (and technology) to edit the choice for them. This is giving rise to manufactured simplicity — a new industry of professional "sifters" that sort information for other people.

Some companies are fully aware of these trends and do their best to make things as easy as possible for their customers. For some this means stripping out unnecessary functionality to create products like washing machines with just a couple of simple buttons.

Other companies are relying on more technology to create simplicity, which seems like a contradiction and ultimately a recipe for disaster to me. Cars are a case in point. There's clearly a market for the latest gizmo-loaded, computer-controlled wonder wagon. But surely there's also a market (retirees for example) for a car that's built as simply as possible. A car that just goes from A to B and when it doesn't is easy and quick to fix.

This need for editing applies to corporations too. Procter and Gamble own over 250 different brands but 50% of global revenues and profits come from just 12 of them.

Meanwhile, some consumers are creating their own simplicity by switching off as much technology as possible. MIT graduate Eric Brendle opted out and moved to the countryside without any technology at all. This created so much time to think that he managed to write a book called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

I recently met an individual who had removed the voicemail on his cell phone because it was creating more work. His argument was that if something was really important the caller would always ring back.

Other manifestations of this desire for simplicity include the Slow Cities movement (a spin off from the Slow Food movement), downshifting, and no email Fridays. There's even a book about going slow rapidly racing up the worldwide best seller lists (In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré).

If you sell a product or a service to time starved, information flooded, stressed out customers what can you do to make their lives a little easier? Here are some thoughts:

  • Listen to what your customers want ahead of what R&D say they can do.
  • Think about time consequences — remote call answering doesn't benefit customers.
  • For some companies nostalgia is an emotional short cut to eras that denote simplicity.
  • If you use lists remember to keep them really short.

Further Reading: Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

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