There seems to be an upsurge of interest in the philosophy of “less is more”. A couple of recent articles about product design, in general and in a specific case, address relevant aspects of this phenomenon.
What do we know?
On one level, we tend to question: how can “less” be “more”? We know it makes no sense! This is true: it really does not make any sense, if all that we focus on is measurable, countable, sequencable information – the kind of information understood by the “left side” of our brains.
On a different level, we know that “less” really is “more”. Less complexity is more simplicity and fun; less distraction is more concentration; and so on. This makes sense when we are thinking about the whole picture – the kind of information which is handled by the “right side” of our brains.
At the moment and on this topic, there is a specific product which is exercising the minds of people who follow these things.
That product is the Apple iPad. There can be very few products which have achieved the combination of generating interest, opening minds, polarizing opinions and, potentially, establishing a whole new generation of products. The iPad has achieved this while at the same time being assumed to be successful before a single unit has been sold.
This assumption has characteristics which are, at the same time, unusual, curious and startling.
The unusual thing is that the assumption of its success is even accepted by people who can perceive of no value in the product. The curious thing is that their acceptance is only partly based on a belief that some people will buy anything, provided that it is perceived to be fashionable. There seems to be an acceptance that there probably is some value, even if that value is for people other than them and neither they nor those other people have figured out what it is yet! The startling thing is there seems to be an even more remote aspect to the assumption of success. Many of those who see no value in the iPad, nevertheless accept that it is likely to be valuable because Apple will eventually provide something which makes it valuable!
What do we believe?
What lies behind this suspension of disbelief? Much of it can be put down to history.
Many organisations have launched new products which have failed, and Apple has had its fair share. But Apple’s success with the iPod and the iPhone confounded some people who did not understand how such products could be so successful. In each case, they might even have predicted its failure, due to the lack of features of the product, and due to Apple extending its market into new areas. So these two factors might now be tempering their scepticism about the iPad. Firstly, those iPod and iPhone products are successful, and some people are still unable to understand why. Secondly, they do not perceive the iPad as extending Apple’s market in the same way; instead they see it as filling in between, say, an iPod Touch and a MacBook Air. So, despite the lack of a logical explanation of how the iPad might provide any value, it is harder for them to reach the conclusion that the iPad has no chance of success. Their attempts to reach that conclusion are undermined by the success of the previous products that they did not understand and by the perceived relative safety of the market segment that Apple is entering with this product.
In reality, however, they seem to be missing the whole point of these products! A description of this point is provided in a recent article by Mike Elgan who has written many times about a variety of aspects of the iPad and associated topics. In “The iPad paradox: Less is more” in Computerworld, he even describes limitations as advantages. This stance is not only interesting because it captures the important point that “less is more”, but also because it is describes the point using some of the terminology used by the sceptics and, thereby, has the potential to bridge the gap and enable them to come over to a different way of thinking.
The “problem” of technical complexity has also been described recently in a more general article in the McKinsey Quarterly [free registration is required to read the whole article]. Marcus Shaper makes the case that more technical complexity requires better management including paying more attention to the technical architecture of products and to the alignment of engineering goals with business goals.
Both of these articles are capturing, in their different ways, the sense that adding features and capabilities unnecessarily to a product reduces its value.
It’s the design …!
In the end, the real issue is, surely, about the quality of design. This is not the superficial visual aspect of something, as is often assumed; a good design establishes a deep and meaningful match between the capabilities of the technology used in a product and the value of the experience of using it. This match is achieved by extremely careful provision of the product’s features. These features form the interface through which the value of the experience is perceived; they are also implemented using the technology. The process of designing a product involves selection of those features as a whole and individually; and an effective design process includes continual attempts to remove features through detailed understanding of the intended experience and of the available technology.
Often the simplest things are the most effective. The elegant trumps the complicated.
Less is more.
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