Everyone starts with simplicity, no-one ends there and that’s OK
Designing a user experience for many millions of people is a unique job that a relatively small number of people practice. The responsibility of such an undertaking is immense, stressful, and one that can be all-consuming. Cold sweats, sick to your stomach, and a constant feeling of messing up are the norm for those that take on these challenges.
But someone has to do it!
Everyone starts with simplicity, then what?
At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal. Products are declared simple, minimal, and tailored to specific uses. Almost no one argues against these attributes and when marketing goes to position a tech product, invariably these attributes bubble up to the top of the favorable list. That’s because of the inherent and expected complexity of tech products as a starting point.
At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal.
But where to go next? Tech products that are simple can start off well, but three things exist immediately after launch.
- A customer need to address feedback and “fix” things that might be simple but are not quite there yet.
- A product need to remain competitive with the products that follow your introduction touting the same simplicity but also do a few more things (reading the reviews of your product will always demonstrate examples of wish lists)
- A business need to develop new products that can enhance revenue, margins, or maintain price points in the face of commoditization.
Tech products, particularly software products, are unique in that there is an almost natural tendency to organically add or to absorb features from competitive or adjacent products. Unlike physical hardware products that have COGS and BOM challenges, the incremental cost of software is simply limited to R&D (and operational costs for SaaS). That means when faced with the above existential properties, tech products will get new features pretty rapidly.
These new features will do constant battle with the simplicity of the initial release. Some argue that this is just bloat and invariably ruins products. Certainly from a design perspective this is a massive challenge. It takes enormous discipline. On the other hand, there are very few examples of software-based products that remain static. To remain static in features is to open yourself up to commoditization or disruption—a static target is an easy target.
Example: Palm Pilot
The introduction of the Palm Pilot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PalmPilot) is a fascinating historic example of simplicity leading to isolation and expiration of a product. The designers of the product did an amazing job building an amazing product. All day battery life, simplicity, specific and purpose-built as the first truly modern and truly mobile productivity tool used by the masses.
I remember in 1998 the Palm Pilot was standard issue for all new MBA students when I taught. Shortly after that time, I recall a panel discussion with one of the original designers of the product. At the time the pitch was overarching simplicity and ease of use. Everyone agreed. Then there was an audience question that changed the dynamic.
Most leading edge folks at this time were carrying Motorola flip phones along with the calendar/notes/contacts in their Palm Pilot. The problem was every time they wanted to make a call, it was a multi-step process that involved looking up a number on the Palm Pilot and juggling the two devices while typing into the phone. While this was vastly easier than going back to your desktop or attempting to pull an 8lb laptop out of your bag, it was a usability disaster.
The question was simply—when could I have all the Palm Pilot functionality on my phone? Lots of words about how you could sync (with a cable, not the cloud that didn’t yet exist), but a hardcore answer about how adding a fifth function to the Palm, a phone, would overload the functionality and make the product too complex and unusable. So the phone would never converge with things like your contacts and calendar.
Honest, that was the answer.
The problem was I was sitting there with my pre-production blackberry merrily connecting in real-time to my calendar, contacts, and email on my Exchange server. It was incredibly clear that the need of a non-converged device with a static copy of some of the important mobile tasks was no longer useful.
A pattern for how things evolve in practice
This challenge in software product design happens time and time again. It is the very nature of disruption. The new product does some things brilliantly well and simply, but is “missing” features people value from an existing product or an adjacent product.
Designers face the choice of adding new capabilities and potentially challenging the beauty of the initial release or facing competition and disruption from new competitors without that same strongly held belief. Marketing, channel, business and pricing can defend against these for a while but ultimately the ease and costs of just adding features in software will win.
The tension between user interface design and the realities and capabilities of software leads to a fairly predictable pattern for how tech/software products evolve. We can think of this pattern as evolution in five stages:
- Mature or Renew
Introduce. First you introduce a new product. In your view it is a thing of beauty. Whether you spent 3 years or 3 months, you are convinced it has exactly the right features done exactly the right way, though you know there are ton of things on your “to do” list. Even if you are practicing lean methodologies you are pretty sure you got it right in your heart even though there is a lot of learning to follow. Your design embodies simplicity in design and messaging. Once your product starts to get used and you have the luxury of people relying on your work you begin to see the holes and maybe even misfires in your experience design. Optimize. You have a lot of work to do to reconcile your “to do” list with what actual people using your product. It turns out that what you thought the product was missing is pretty different than what everyone else thought the product was missing. You shrug this off and take the feedback seriously because you have real-world people using your product. Quite often the innovations introduced at this stage are formalizations for how people were using your product. Add-ins, customizations, or just conventions that enhanced usage become the sorts of things you formalize in the product. You very quickly iterate and get to a much more robust, reliable, stable, and usable version of what you had originally envisioned. This becomes the foundation of your product.
Deliberate. Evolving your product at this stage is very fun. While you believe you have a product that embodies your vision, with usage you begin to see broader usage and scenarios as part of your product. There might be third parties that do similar things as you but with a slightly different or much improved take on a specific mechanism you have in your product. Because you have become a leader with your product in “the way” things are done, when you decide to introduce an innovation it comes as a deliberate and thoughtful extension of your experience. Rarely do you see pushback from a broad base of customers when something new is introduced at this stage in your product’s evolution. In fact you often are seen as taking the product to a new level and providing a broader context in which your whole category or class of products should evolve. You are basking in the glow of innovating in the user experience of your space—you have come to define the category and now you’re defining the category to include new elements of user-experience.
Succumb. The feedback your product is receiving is growing, both positive and negative. As your product is used more and more, the usage scenarios and skill-levels of your customers change dramatically. Your product is used in ways you could never imagine and customers are asking for your product to do things you would never have imagined they would ask. If your product becomes essential for some scenario, then people will ask for your product to take on attributes and features of other familiar products (if you share photos, then you’re likely to be asked for photo editing for example; if you communicate, then before long you will be asked for rules and filters; if you type then you will be asked for more and more formatting, spelling, and entry features). If during the previous stage you really believed you had achieved a level of almost Bauhaus minimalism about your product, this is the stage when you feel a relentless pressure to add more. You’re hearing from customers, pundits, press and more about the must-haves and must-dos. This is by far the most stressful time in product development—you can’t just step back and not change things, but you constantly feel like changes are all part of a slippery slope. You constantly find yourself struggling between the minimalist view of the product you have been perfecting and the need from different types of customers for seemingly contradictory types of features. It is why at this stage as a designer you feel like you are succumbing to feedback and introducing features that you know some people will value and others will see the other way or maybe just not even notice—you feel like you’re bloating your simple product. These are the hardest decisions to make and are the price of success. If you try to hang on to simplicity, you will see competitors pass you by or you’ll see engagement stagnate.
Mature or Renew. The natural evolution of most every product involves a fairly long period of incorporating features in the previous stage—you add some new things, incrementally change some existing things, and in general are working to find a path through the maze of contradictory feedback and complex market needs. Over time your product will develop a different personality and unique set of assets, but is going to be far from that original version. While you might have hundreds of millions of customers, at some point the experience of your product is such that the market collectively demands an overhaul. The challenge of course is that the collective market is very different than any one individual or an organization (for enterprise products). The latter two, unlike the aggregate view of the market, do not necessarily embrace change. This point in the evolution of your product is where you face disruption—the telltale signs of reduced engagement, alternative tools and experiences, or just a lack of energy in your ecosystem are signs that your product is overdue for improvements, new features and more. Software affords you the chance to reimagine your product and presents you with the opportunity at this time. Of course with hundreds of millions of customers, a very large number in absolute will not want any change at all. That’s why this stage of evolution is a choice—you can incrementally mature your product design or you can choose to renew your product design. These two are really that very rare of “either-or” choices. As a product designer, you will be faced with a big set of decisions when you have to design what comes next for a mature product. Be careful what you wish for you as your design might be so successful that one day you face the prospect of redesigning it in the context of a significant customer base.
Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road.
Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road—one where you can renew or watch your product slowly shrink in relevance. This might seem dramatic, but the velocity of change in the technology world combined with the ease of switching shows that one day what might seem like “the way things are done” will risk becoming “the way things used to be” much sooner than expected.
Disruption and technology transitions are part of the context of designing products and experiences.
From search home pages, to photo editors, word processors, operating systems, music players, and more these stages are all part of the evolution of a user experience. The beauty of software interface is that unlike the physical world you are given the chance to move things around, change, and improve the product for little to no manufacturing cost, but at each stage you have to work through the cost of change to customers.
No other product in history has had the ability to be used by so many yet be so flexible in how it is used.
Simplicity in design is what we all strive for and often how we begin a product lifecycle. With success, maintaining simplicity over time while also remaining competitive is where design and product management are really challenged.
The “soft” of software makes this challenge even more acute and the pressures to add or change a product even more difficult to resist.
–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)