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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Why Simple Is Powerful

Can you name one piece of legislation that you fully understand? Can you really say that you understand the nuances of any major news story? How about your agency or company – do you have a pretty good grasp of how it works, and where it’s headed in the future?

For most of us, the answer is no. Not because we are lacking in information. Rather it’s because we’re drowning in it. And we cannot sift the valuable stuff from the crap.

In the age of more words, more functionality, more choices, more signs, more tools, 24/7/365 and instant gratification, a little simplicity is truly sanity. We don’t need to know everything, we don’t want to know everything, just give us the bottom line. Otherwise we are illiterate and illiterate people lack power.

This week I was fortunate to hear a talk by from the authors of the new book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, brand consultants Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

The thesis of the book is that simplification is not only about doing communication better, but more fundamentally about the consumers’ right to understand, make sense of, “own” their world.

In that sense the authors are kind of like crusaders, fighting the various self-interested parties who use complexity to boggle the mind into submission.

It’s a struggle, said Siegel:

• “People entrenched in doing complex things to everyday people are threatened by anything new or that reduces their apparent worth or value, and that goes for doctors and lawyers and people in all professions.”

• “Very often subject matter experts view it (complexity) as a badge of honor – they don’t realize they’re speaking only to themselves.

That is why change in favor of simplicity requires aggressive advocates from the top down:

• "We have never had success without the leaders of a company or government agencies supporting it, believing it, and living it.”

Those leaders must do more than just make nice speeches about change:

• “Working with a company, product, or service that’s complex and dysfunctional means that you’re probably going to have to fire people, change vendors, redo your computer system, and it creates a lot of change and change is difficult for organizations.”

• “If you don’t have a champion willing to face it, make hard decisions, fund it, you're not going to be successful."

Leaders don’t just decide to simplify things out of nowhere. Rather, they are pressured into taking the risk of turning the ship around by impending crises – loss of market share, customers not paying bills, complaints in social media. Either way, once the decision to simplify the offering is made the process of doing so is relatively straightforward:

• Principle #1 – Empathy: Understand the user’s “real world” context and design to that.

• Principle #2 – Distillation: Boil it down, and down again as if you were using a filter, and extract the essence of the meaning.

• Principle #3 – Clarification: Make the product even easier to understand, use and benefit from.

The team has done a lot of work for the government and Etzkorn took the time to point out that complexity does not necessarily have to go away completely. Rather, the underlying structure behind it should be ordered and rationalized. Not all of it is actually necessary.

More importantly, she said, you must hide any convolutedness from the end user. Just because some complexity has to be there, does not mean that the customer should be burdened with it.

I really liked what Siegel and Etzkorn had to say. It wasn’t so much that the products they showed were beautiful or that the writing was clearly easier to read (although it was).

Rather it was their humanistic vision that really struck a chord with me. In the end simplicity is important because it sets a person free from their “learned helplessness” in the face of all this clutter.

“Complexity is a thief that must be apprehended. It robs us of time, patience, understanding, money and optimism.”

In the end simplifying our products and our organizations is not just a nice thing to do. Rather it is fundamental to freedom, empowerment and choice. The average person must be able to make sense of their world quickly, in order to make meaningful decisions and fight back against those who would take advantage of them. I hope the book sells well, and that their “simplicity” movement catches on.

* As always all opinions are my own.