Simple Is Smart

Irene Etzkorn
Apr 29, 2013 · 5 min read

There’s nothing simple about simplicity. It is a concept with many nuances and lines. A second pass suggests that clarity makes for simplicity—something with clear intent that quickly conveys its purpose or use. With even greater magnification, you find that it’s about essence—cutting to what matters, delivering substantive content that seems to speak to an audience of one. Lastly, it’s not about what is there but what you take—a feeling of confidence, of trust, of satisfaction. So for us, simplicity has no synonym—it’s not just convenience, clarity, usability, timeliness, or beauty. It’s the sum of all of those, and that’s why it is so rare. When you reach a point where you have achieved transparency (laying bare the underlying truth whatever it reveals), clarity (expressing meaning clearly and simply), and usability (making something fit for its purpose), you have likely achieved simplicity.

Case Study: Google

When Google introduced its now-famous search engine, it wasn’t the first to offer search capability to consumers. But Google’s version quickly left competitors behind, gaining mainstream acceptance. And as many observers have noted in the years since, the simplicity of Google’s home page had much to do with its appeal and success. In fact, when we recently surveyed more than 6,000 respondents worldwide for the Siegel+Gale 2011 Global Brand Simplicity Index, one brand stood above all the rest: Google. People rate it the highest of any brand out there in terms of delivering a clean, simple, rewarding experience.

But why was Google the only one to make its search page so simple and uncluttered? Shouldn’t other search firms have done likewise with their offerings? If, in this case, less is clearly more, then why not just offer less? It would seem to be not only the smartest but also the easiest option for a company producing a search page.

But in fact, it can be much harder to simplify—which may explain why Google was the only one to offer such a clean page. So how did Google resist the temptation to add on and complicate? We talked to the Mountain View, California-based company about this, and learned a couple of surprising things.

Google didn’t just stumble into its home page design; it didn’t arrive at simplicity by default. The company actually developed a rigorous system that imposed tight restrictions upon what could and could not be added to the page. The company’s leaders had to stand firm against Google’s own creative and well-meaning engineers. And in some cases, they even had to defy the wishes of customers.

This ongoing task of holding the line against complexity—which often involves being willing to “just say no” to additional features, design flourishes, and other potential complications—often fell to Marissa Mayer, the company’s Director of Consumer Web Products*. When we spoke to Mayer about how she managed this, she surprised us by using a word you tend to hear from theatrical casting directors, not tech managers. Mayer explained that any potential new feature hoping to get on the Google home page must go through an “audition.” First, the feature is tried out on Google’s advanced search page to see how it performs there. But even if the new idea demonstrates its viability in the advanced search, it still goes through a tough scoring system developed by Google.

Here’s how the scoring system works:

1. They assign a “point” for each change in type style, type size or color.

2. They add the points; the maximum allowed for a promotion is 3 points.

The goal for the home page is the fewest possible number of points. As Mayer says, “More points = less simplicity.”

This stripped-down approach could easily lead to a home page that would be pristine but devoid of humanity. Google’s page is anything but that. Millions of people log onto the Google homepage just to see the ever-changing dressing of their logo. Google understood that while many elements on the home page could be considered extraneous, it was important to have something—even just one small, playful touch—that would convey the brand personality. In many ways, Google is a utility like toothpaste, but as Mayer says, “imagine if your toothpaste tube had unpredictable, whimsical designs on it.” That would change your perception of the toothpaste-maker. The company is so focused on simplicity that it refuses to be led astray—even by its own customers. For example, when Google surveys users to see if they wanted more search results per page, they invariably say yes—who wouldn’t want more results to choose from? But, Mayer says, “we don’t give it to them.” Google knows that offering more results will take longer to load and that will slow down and ultimately diminish the user’s experience—even if most people don’t realize this. “Customers often don’t understand the consequences of their choices, but it is our job to do so,” Mayer says. “We figured out that 10 results per page is the right number. We don’t change that.” In other words, Google has the guts to give customers less, even when they ask for more.

Simplification is often about narrowing the scope of what you offer as you try to serve those needs. Successful simplifiers distill whatever they’re offering down to its essence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of simplification because distillation requires focus and discipline in the face of the constant temptation to add on, expand, and complicate.

Anyone trying to create a simple anything—a product, a piece of communication, a service, experience, a law or regulation—must be ruthless when it comes to editing, purifying or to use a harsher word, killing. Hollywood filmmakers often use the term “killing your babies” when referring to a scriptwriter’s painful task of deleting something he loves—a colorful scene, a quirky character, an oh-so-clever line—that just doesn’t advance the story. If filmmakers didn’t kill their babies regularly, they’d be producing four-hour films with diluted messages that make viewers want their four hours and ten bucks back. Similarly, when simplifying products, services, communications, or even entire business models, there’s no substitute for being a ruthless killer.

The challenge is knowing what to kill and what to keep—what’s essential and what isn’t. Companies can and should rely on consumers to help them figure that out through research, though it’s important to note that the customer isn’t always right about this, as Google has shown. People have a tendency to want “more” even if it’s not necessarily good for them. And marketers have a tendency to offer them “more” in order to make the easy sale.

*Marissa Mayer is now President and CEO of Yahoo!

Excerpted from the book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. Copyright (c) 2013 by Irene Etzkorn and Alan Siegel. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Breakthrough Simplicity

A collection focusing on breakthrough simplicity, with a series of excerpts from Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity.

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