Example of ‘EASY’ and ‘Simple’ / MEDIUM.com

Easy & Simple

Where most, but not all, software solutions go wrong.

Joe Manna
6 min readAug 14, 2013


There was a time when software had to become the most powerful, the most feature-packed, have the most users and appeal to everyone. Not any more.

While this piece isn’t an insult against any one software solution, it was reflective of the time and era in that software did have to appeal to the masses. While there are some software solutions that need to appeal to the masses — Microsoft Word, anyone? — the majority of software solutions today don’t need to appeal to everyone.

I’ve observed an appealing trend among software and service vendors in the past few years. Instead of aiming to pack as many features into a software solution, they have slowed down a bit to ensure the features are actually worth the time it takes to lay down the code for them.

For some companies, this is near impossible:

Twitter — Launched as a mobile/SMS texting replacement so friends could maintain an on-going conversation. Gained massive adoption while caught in a vacuum of demand and features. They survived amid a few #failwhales here and there.

Facebook — Launched as a digital yearbook and innovated from mistakes of the Web 2.0 era. As it gained massive, global appeal, every new feature had to be stress-tested and intuitive if they expected adoption, all while maintaining a “clean” user interface.

Hootsuite — Launched as a front-end solution to publish and schedule Tweets from an agency, for agencies. Had to implement features at a break-neck speed to attract the masses and secure solid relationships with their associated social networks.

So, if you are being inundated with an onslaught of customers, you pretty much have no choice. You just have to lay down code as quick as possible without breaking anything.

But once the flood of new users (and wider appeal) takes effect, then feature-creep sets in. Then the complaints stream in. Then the reputation for being ‘hard to use’ becomes the norm. What happened?

On the surface, easy and simple seems so innocent. It’s practical and obvious to many that if you make a feature, it had better be easy. But what many people don’t understand is that “easy” and “simple” and [implicitly] “powerful” are all very demanding adjectives for software solutions. I’ll get into this in a moment.

When there are fewer competitors or alternatives, it is quite easy to make the decision to add more features and neglect the priority of the users. After all, if it does more, it is better, right?

A fantastic example of this is seen between today’s big three web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. All have slightly different paradigms, but in the end, they deliver the same access to web pages that you and I currently visit. But what went from a browser “packed” with features and the ability to easy load up on third-party toolbars (Internet Explorer), shifted to a browser focused on speed and security (Firefox) to a browser focused on minimalism and a “get out of the way” approach to web browsing (Chrome). You might disagree with me on the semantics here, but you can’t help but compare the user interfaces, prompts and general navigation experiences seen by users.

More than anything, this isn’t a lesson on marketing. It is a lesson on the discipline of being extremely intentional about every feature, every experience and every user. Google Chrome, for all intents and purposes, probably aims to be the number one web browser and must appeal to the masses. How do they win the power-users and coders? Extensions and a Developer console. How they win the “regular” web users? Make it a clean experience — “just the web, please” kind of experience. How do they win the security community? They stress-test the hell out of it and even fund security competitions and give praise to hackers who can attack the browser. How do they win everyone? Make it so blazing fast, that it becomes the standard that rivals are compared to. (It doesn’t hurt to also attract engineers who obsess over this stuff.)

But, let me get back to “easy” and “simple” for a moment.

Easy is defined [1] as, “causing or involving little difficulty or discomfort.” Simple is defined [2a] as, “free from ostentation or display.” So if easy means that the end user needs to take minimal effort to achieve a benefit, and simple means (roughly) free from distractions, it seems like we have a good formula for creating great software.

Now that there are multiple alternatives to incumbent software solutions. Users don’t have to stick with software that causes them to scream in frustration. In fact, it is because software has traditionally been difficult to use and/or difficult to achieve a stated benefit, that more solutions have been created and has influenced more people to “switch” to a rival in nearly every category.

Here are a few mainstream examples (and these aren’t necessarily indictments on the former):

  • Microsoft Access → MySQL
  • Redhat Linux → Ubuntu
  • Windows XP → Windows 7
  • Blogger → WordPress
  • Microsoft Office → Google Drive
  • Backup CDs and DVDs → Dropbox
  • Oracle → Salesforce
  • Blockbuster → Netflix

… I think you get the idea.

If you create or otherwise influence the development of software, realize that the competition is going to turn the heat up on you. If you aren’t making a meaningful investment to make your software truly easy and simple, you are digging your own grave and your customers will find other alternatives.

Compare your software’s experience to that of buying a new car. If I buy a new car, I should immediately experience the benefit of driving without needing to read the owner’s manual. If your users need to read a lengthy tutorial before achieving a benefit, you’re doing it wrong.

I want to illustrate a few example of common frustrations I see across many difficult software solutions:

  • Get me to my benefit immediately. Don’t make me have to configure, setup, test, tweak, change, undo … before I can achieve a meaningful benefit.
  • Excessive clicks. This is tricky because you don’t want to overwhelm users, but try not to bury your most important features several clicks away.
  • Give me context. Show me and explain what I am looking at and inform me of why it is important.
  • Stop overwhelming me. Don’t show me all your features at once. Show me only the most meaningful ones so I can achieve my immediate benefit. Make advanced/power features available as needed.
  • Guide me the first couple times. Give me a few examples and show me the ropes so I can achieve my intended benefit. And if I don’t get it right the first time, guide me. When I’m ready, stop bugging me.
  • Let me know what is new and focus the message on why. I know you made improvements to your software, but you don’t tell me why that matters to me. And don’t tell me in geek-speak, either. Tell me with context to my intended benefits.
  • Listen to me. Really. I am a user of your software. I want to give you feedback, but you don’t make it easy for me to do so. I could be ditching your software because of a fairly minor reason … and you will never know. Be there for me when I need you most and take action on my ideas.

I know this list might be re-stating the obvious to many of you, but seriously, this is the stuff that causes people to ditch a solution and look elsewhere.

And back to my cover photo. That is Medium, a new publishing network created by the founders of Twitter. I think they nailed easy and simple. I didn’t have to think, nor did I have to exert any more effort into using their product. The less important, but critical features, are neatly tucked away behind the “M.” Since the user interface was exceptionally minimal, I was curious and clicked on the ‘M’ to see what happened. Oh, a side menu appeared with six options. And they emphasized what was important to achieve a benefit — dropped me into a full-screen editor. No noise. No chaos. And if I was still lost, they suggested what I should be doing with placeholder text.

Simply beautiful. Medium is a leading example for any product leader and developer who wants to see how one company shipped a clean, simple and powerful product.

If you are building the next big startup or leading the charge at your software company, consider this the motivation to raise your hand, stand up and demand that “easy” and “simple” become regular and expected words in your vocabulary.



Joe Manna

A guy living in Phoenix who loves small businesses, startups and cars. These views are my own.