Product Design: Think Useful, Create Simple


We’ve all been conditioned to think complex. The more advanced something is, the smarter or more professional the creator looks. Complexity has become synonymous “good” in our culture. I’m guessing this is because the desire to be seen as smart is more important then the need to truly be understood.

This is a problem when it comes to education, business and designing products (specifically web and mobile applications).

When it comes to real world application, “complex” is simply complex…confusing and hard to understand.  Complexity may get your noticed by the academic world but it will earn you no brownie points when it comes to the consumer world.  In fact, complexity gives consumers a “simple” reason not to use your product.

Some of the most successful people and companies in the world dismissed the mainstream tendency to create complex and instead adopted the practice of simplifying everything and getting extraordinary results.

Einstein once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”  I mean what can me more simple then E=MC² for explaining the concept of mass-energy equivalence?

McDonalds created the perfect model of simplified efficiency.  There are thousands of burger shacks out their but none that runs with the fluidity (and liquidity) of McDonalds.  A system that can be reproduced a million times over created an empire built on simplicity.

Twitter was built on the notion that people wanted to share and learn “What’s Happening”.  They kept that platform lean and open for developers to build off of, and before they knew it, they have created the ultimate real time information network.

Simple concepts and strategy with fantastic implementation creating extraordinary results!

The more web and mobile software products I use, have them be consumer facing or enterprise, I see myself gravitating towards “simple”.  Designing different consumer products I see myself starting to build more simple (although against my instincts).

I have learned to:

Start with the core.  The core should be simple, unique and something you have a shot being the best in world at.  It should be a feature or specific functionality that if you take it away, there would be no more product.  All other features should compliment this specific feature.

For example, I use Basecamp for all my project management needs.  I would identify the core of Basecamp simply being “the project”.  As simple as it sounds, everything stems from a single project.  Each user is connected to a project or a set of projects.  There are specific features within that project that allows users to interact and share information within the project.  You take the project feature (if you want to call it a feature) out of Basecamp and you got nothing but a bunch of loose ends.  Basecamp has an extremely simple and easy to use UI that I love…it makes project managing simple, and sometimes even fun.

Starting with the core is not only essential to keep things simple and usable, but it also allows the designer to maintain focus on the most important elements of the product.

I am also learning to, focus on building what is useful rather then complimentary.  It is very easy to see opportunities to build on top of certain features, I mean wouldn’t it be cool if you can see uploaded photos and videos directly on Twitter instead of getting rerouted to third party app?  The problem with that, it goes against their core focus and is not extremely useful to users (after all, one click will get them to their desired destination).  This not only takes the designer away from the core, but it will take the user away the core which most likely diminish the user experience (taking them away from their purpose for being there).  Increasing the opportunity to leave your website, app and never fully immersing themselves in your product.

Lastly, I make sure to make it’s easy to iterate and that there is an established feedback loop. The deeper you build away from the core…the harder it will be to be agile and iterate.  Making changes and adjustments based on feedback is essential to creating a useful product.  Especially when that feedback is directly from you users.  The simpler your product, the easier you can push it out to your users and the general public.  Which means more feedback, faster and room to make necessary changes.

“Simple and Useful” should be a mantra of all product teams.  Quit making things complex…it doesn’t help anyone but your ego.  If “simple” creates enough longterm value for people…you can stroke your ego then.

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