Parks Associates Blog

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Keeping it Simple

Connections 2008 is about half over already and I wanted to share a few thoughts. If there’s one message that seems to come up in every session, keynote, and panel it’s that simplicity is the key to consumer adoption. Of course, we’ve all heard that before. Our industry’s ability to confuse customers is well recognized. Yet this is what made me stop and think. If we’re all in agreement that simplicity is the key, why do we need to remind each other year after year. Why are the products and services we offer still so complex? I suspect two inter-related factors explain the reason.

1) Our ambitions are too high. By this I mean, we’re trying to simplify too many things at once. Rather than offering a product or service with a few, easy to use capabilities, we offer something with countless “easy-to-use” capabilities. Of course, “countless” can never be “easy-to-use” and hence our products are still complex.

2) We’re trying to impress ourselves rather than our customers. Let’s face it, we in the tech industry are impressed with cool cutting-edge capabilities. When a new product is launched we immediately ask, “Does it have 802.11n, DLNA, MOCA, DRM, GPS, 3G, MPEG4, and 100Mbps?” If the answer is “yes”, we hail it as a technological break-through. If it doesn’t, we pay it no bother and move onto the next CES booth. The problem with this is that most consumers are not impressed with an alphabet soup of standards; they are impressed with simple, reliable products.

Apple seems to have discovered the path to simplicity. The iPod didn’t boast any cutting-edge technologies. (The original didn’t even allow you to view photos or videos for crying out loud.) Likewise the iPhone was technologically ho-hum. No 3G, no GPS, etc. etc. Yet Apple is the one reveling in market successes. Maybe they are onto something.

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Anonymous Grayson Evans said...

Hi John,

Having worked in this industry for over 30 years, I figured out the problem 15 years ago. It's simple, but subtle.
There is NO collective memory of what we have learned in consumer electronics industry. I have witnessed this over and over again. By the time people at a company begin to understand the problem, they are no longer at that company. Turnover in consumer electronics is horrendous. Young people enter the industry and have no knowledge of what "we" have learned, and continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over. I can give you many examples.
And it gets worse every year. Why? because the kids coming in have adapted to the previous level of consumer device complexity and assume it's "normal". They want to make it more "feature rich" and high-tech, which makes it more complicated. By the time they get to an age where they "get it" they are no longer in a position to do anything about it or lack the clout/will/interest or simple don't get listed to.
An interesting case study is Apple and Steve Jobs. Steve "got it" early in his life and is in the most rare of positions to do something about over a long period of time. He has a memory of what works and what did not. He can, therefore, be highly effective in setting his company product "simplicity" standards. I know of no other CEO that exercises that kind of detail control, but that's what it's going to take if we want to reverse the trend.

7:10 AM  

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