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Strategic insights
Simplicity Rarely Means Less

Written by on January 29, 2008

There has always been a lot of talk about simplicity. "Make it simple" is a very common approach to creating better products. But, unfortunately a lot of people think that you can achieve simplicity by removing features and creating less. This is rarely the case.

There are two ways to make something simple. The first is to remove features and elements from your project. This may indeed make it simpler, and easier to use - but in most cases it will also make it harder to reach your goal.

The other way is to make something simple by the means of adding focus. You don't actually take anything away (and in many cases you add functionality), but you do it so that it ads focus. The result is that people will reach their goals faster and in a more flexible way.

How to make water simple

Everything can be simplified - and indeed everything can be made better if you use the right kind of simplicity (and worse if you use the wrong kind). A good example is something as plain as a glass of water.

How can we simplify a glass of water? Having less doesn't work because if we remove the glass, the water would spill out. Nor can we remove the water because then we would have nothing to drink.

We cannot even remove a part of it. If we remove just a small chunk of glass, the water would still spill out, and if we remove say 50% of the water we also reduce the experience by 50%.

Less really is less - and in most cases it may destroy your product.

But there is indeed a way to simplify a glass of water. You can purify it.

You can remove all the air bobbles from the glass, smooth out the surface and even out the thickness of it to eliminate any visual distortions. This way, the water would seem like it is floating in air instead of being inside a glass.

The water can be purified too. A funny fact is that tap-water in many countries is actually cleaner than the water you buy in a bottle, but it doesn't taste as fresh. This is because of very small quantaties of non-toxic elements coming from the water pipes. We can simplify the water by removing these elements.

You get is a glass that looks stunning, and water that is clean and has an incredible fresh taste. And most importantly we didn't remove any functionality. We made it simple, but we didn't create "less".

How to simplify a fat guy

Another, yet similar, example is a fat guy. Compare this to an overly complex, hard-to-use, and inefficient application. It is the result of clutter.

Note: I am in no way discriminating against fat people. This is only intended as a metaphor - nothing else.

There is no question that this person could be improved and simplified. But again, the way we simplify him determines if the result will be spectacular and useful, or whether it will make a bad situation worse.

If we simplify him by removing features and/or functionality we end up with less - which is bad. For instance, we could remove his arms like this:

But that didn't really help much. Now we just got a fat guy with no arms. If we go one step further and also remove his legs - You know, make him really simple - we make it even worse.

And yes, I know what you are thinking. I am just being foolish because I am removing all the wrong things. I should not remove his arms or legs - he needs those - I should remove the part that is fat.

That is a very good point, and I partly agree. So let's do that and remove his body:

Now we theoretically solved the problem. We had a fat guy. We didn't want all that fat, and we removed it. Hurray!! But... we still didn't solve the real issue here. The fat is only a part of the problem.

Removing functionality and features is almost never the real solution to the problem. You need to clean up the clutter - not the features.

Don't focus on the things you want to remove.
Focus on what you want to keep

It doesn't matter if your application has a zillion features as long as the important ones work brilliantly. In fact, having extra features allow people to grow with your application - to become power users.

Just take a look at browsers. They are very good at browsing pages on the internet. But, you can also expand on that experience with a zillion add-ons.

The trick is to make your primary functionality efficient to use. Decrease the number of steps you need to take, have it react intelligently to what people are doing and move all other features out of the way.

When to do less anyway

Simplifying - by applying focus - is always a much better approach, but there are two situations where you can be forced to do less.

The first situation is when your application includes features that are completely irrelevant and counter-productive. A good example of this kind of unnecessary waste is when you have a financial application that allows you to play golf with a Wii remote.

This is clearly not a productive feature and should be removed completely.

BTW: If you desperately need to play golf, install "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008" on your computer - instead of "polluting" your financial application with it.

The other situation is when you are running out of resources. Lack of time introduces a dilemma. The best way to solve the problem is to focus your efforts - but you cannot change from clutter to focus without spending time doing so.

In short, you need time to gain time. And, if you are out of time you are not getting anywhere.

Doing less, for a short period of time, will often allow you to focus your efforts in the long run. Just make sure that you actually spend the extra time gained to focus your efforts.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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