What is product simplicity?

The KISS principle – Keep it simple stupid – something all of us as software product managers have heard one time or another. But when it comes to products, what exactly is prproductcomplexityoduct simplicity? Product usability and simplicity typically falls into three different categories, in my perspective. This perspective is based on my 13 year experience as a software product manager building products for the mass market – small businesses in particular. Enterprise products may be a different ball game and hence your mileage may vary.

1) Less is more – Don’t overload your product with all the features your users may ever want. Instead focus on those features that 80% of your customers would need. Yes, this will mean telling the remaining 20% one of two things – this product is not for you (sales – yes, be honest with the customer) or get used to the feature set we have because here are the benefits. In the latter case, here are couple of examples that come to mind: Apple iPod comes to mind. I would love to delete songs directly from my iPod, but I cannot. I need to go to iTunes for that. I can choose to complain that Apple was wrong, but given the huge other benefits offered by the iTunes-iPod integration, I get used to it not being there. Apple drew the line in the sand and said No.

One of the common pitfalls companies fall into is full product configurability. Full configurability is not necessary. What it does is create a slew of options, intimidates users and on top of it creates a maintenance and testing nightmare. Majority of the users tend to use products in the default configuration. How often have you gone to the preferences or options dialog to configure something, especially when you are a brand new user? Provide basic configurations and then let the customers guide you with the other configuration options they would need. Again, stick to the 80% rule.

This is hard to do because the 20% of those customers who need all of the complicated features could be your largest customers, the most vociferous ones. But as a software product manager, you should own your product direction and learn to say No to those requests which will take your product in a direction you don’t want to go. I do not mean be arrogant, but reason with the customer as to why you don’t want to do it – in the past, I have been very honest with the customers as to how the general user base would not need the functionality being requested and they have backed down. The trick here is that your product should have such a high value proposition that these things end up to be gravy in the whole scheme of things. And if the features requests (which fail the 80% test) are the meat and potatoes for these customers. then your product after all may not be the right fit for them. Be honest with such customers and recommend the products they should look at – this may even be your competitor’s products. Don’t miss out on building the relationship, you would never know when it will come handy – for all you know they may find the competitor’s product complex/expensive and may dproduct simplicityecide to buy your product instead.

2) Your product behaves the way users expect it to – In this case, it is not about less features. Often, users expect the product to have the functionality to get their job done. To facilitate this, your product could end up being feature rich. But there is a difference – there are many products that are feature rich but not very user friendly. Then there are other products that are equally feature rich, but much easier to use. Personally, I was involved in one such product called SolidWorks which made its mark because of its production readiness and because of its ability to run on Windows with the same ease of use as Office applications at 1/5th the price of PTC’s product called Pro/ENGINEER. Pro/ENGINEER was powerful, super complex to use, ran on Unix workstations and costs tens of thousands of dollars at that time.

The trick here is to minimize the deviation between how the user expects to complete a particular task and how the software allows the user to do the task. Larger the deviation, lower the usability of the product. This is because users will have to learn new ways to do tasks that they think should be very easy to do. Usability testing is key to ensure that there is minimal deviation between the user expectation and actual difficulty in completing a particular task.

3) Your product is a game changer – Your product comes up with a very innovative way to do things the users could never imagine possible with the current systems he uses. Two products that are classic examples are 1) Bose products and 2) Shazam, the nice little iPhone app.

waveradio-shazamWhether it is Bose’s Wave radio or the acoustic noise reducing headphones or the iPod sounddock they sell, their products are game changers. They have hidden all the dials/controls that the user had to muddle with to listen to music and  made it dead simple – no dials, no controls, it just works. This to me is a game changer. Shazam is equally simple. It listens to the music that is being played, analyzes it and identifies the song – number of clicks needed – ONE to start the process. It even integrates with iTunes to download the song. To top it all, it is FREE. Can it get any better than that?

You can do this, it takes effort. When it comes to software, this is easier to do (or at least I think it is because all I have done is software in my career). One technique I have used successfully is to write down each and every step that is currently involved in completing a task and see how many of these can be automated or compressed into less number of tasks. You will be surprised in what you find. But when doing this, you will come across the naysayers who ask you – “What if the user wants to do this, what if they want to do that?”. The best way to counter is by making sure you know what the 80% of your users will need and then stick to the principle of Less is more.

Thoughts? What have you as a software product manager experienced when it comes to product simplicity?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the feed to receive future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Images: Courtesy of gizmodo.com, bose.com, shazam.com

3 thoughts on “What is product simplicity?”

  1. Lots of of bloggers not very happy with the new iPad.There was 2 much hoopla regarding it and alot people got disapointed.Thing is, I can actually see lots of the cool potential uses of the gizmo. Third-party applications for composing tunes, games, papers and magazine and books, tons of neat stuff, but IMHO they failed to sell it very well (aside from the books). It smells sort of not finished

  2. Agree to your overall concept, especially the full configurability aspect that you have mentioned.

    Less is more : Spot on, only the bare minimum should pass into the product. And it should be coherent to what already exists without adding any complexity. Which means, you will need to say no to the customer/prospect not only through sales but through all the channels you have for communicating with the end user, be it sales, marketing, support or product management.

    Good Usability helps achieving #2.

    Offering something dead simple and easy to use should always be the mantra.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: