Why Product Simplicity Always Wins
We humans love to complicate things. The more crap we hang off of a product, the better we think it is. The more engineering that goes into it, the more we can sell, right?
Simplicity wins. Every time. (iPod, anyone?)
As an entrepreneur, I get to hang out with other entrepreneurs (and we act all clubby and hip and cool like it’s some secret club – but it really is). In those circles I get to see and hear a gajillion awesome ideas and pitches.
Oftentimes, many of the idea pitches suck (and if you want to know why they suck, here’s a straightforward post that explains all the contributors to suckitude). For the ones that don’t suck, the difference between a winning or losing product invariably comes down to simplicity and elegance.
For example, you’ve probably heard the urban legend that during the late 1960’s, NASA spent tons of money on pens that would write in the zero gravity of outer space. Huge amounts of R&D by private firms went into creating the highly-specified, super cool, usable-in-any-environment writing devices. I mean, who wouldn’t want a space age pen that could write anywhere?
Now you’ll remember, the dirty nasty red menace commie bastards of the USSR were also locked in the space race with us (chillax – I’m saying that tongue in cheek for those of you who are new readers and aren’t familiar with my style or lack thereof). They didn’t have as much cash and they were super-lazy too. They just said “Here komrade kosmonaut! Is pencil! Is good, da?” (They actually totally said that too. I’ve heard the recording).
A pencil. A freakin’ pencil. Simplicity of design wins. Lower cost. Easier to use. Arguably more effective. Frees up resources to work on higher value stuff or to market the simpler product and outspend your competitors on advertising.
Here are a couple of examples of how I’ve seen the space pen dynamic show up in entrepreneurial ventures and, more importantly, what you can do to prevent spending hoards of cash on useless products that no one ultimately wants:
RFID is awesome. Mini chips that let you trace, tag, and track stuff. Cha-ching.
A buddy of mine came to me with an idea pitch. He followed my prescribed format. “The problem is you lose socks in the wash or it’s just a pain to match socks up and pair them when you’re folding laundry.” OHMYGODYEAH! I HATE THAT! (Mind-blower: what if you’re actually not *losing* a sock in the dryer but instead the dryer is magically giving you an EXTRA sock each time? Noodle on that one for a bit).
“So my idea is we’ll embed RFID chips in the socks and then you can just scan the laundry with a hand scanner and you’ll totally be able to match the socks up lickety split and you’ll save tons of time. You’ll also be able to find the one sock you always seem to lose.” Sounded like a good solution. Super-techie. Cool. Futuristic. You could clearly see charging a lot of money for this solution.
I couldn’t resist destroying his idea. “Hey dude, why can’t I simply tie my socks together before I put them in the wash?” Silence. Clearly the solution was overengineered.
Website Mockup Engine
Entrepreneurs and companies alike all have needs to mock-up new websites and platforms. More often than not, that design is done on a whiteboard which, admittedly, can be challenging to share with developers, marketers, etc.
A friend of mine came to me saying he had cracked the problem. He showed me this wicked awesome web-based cloud engine where you can drag and drop text boxes, images, and type stuff in to have it look like a website. A user can have a prototype drawn up reasonably quickly using the software.
Enter the dreamcrusher (me). “Hey, it’s just like using PowerPoint, huh? Like, I make my mockups in PowerPoint and send the slides to the developers and they make the site in a jiffy.”
I got a bunch of reasons why it was better on the web based platform that I would be charged $30/month to use instead of on the laptop-based-always-with-me-even-when-I-don’t-have-connectivity-and-I’ve-already-paid-for-the-software-once PowerPoint solution.
Hmm. Cool factor: 9.2. Extra value relative to next best solution: negative 3.4.
Awesome Show Up Exactly on Time App
Apps are kewl. You have to have a hip iPhone or Android to have them (unlike me with my uncool BlackBerry). A guy was pitching me the merits of his sweet new app that used GPS data and mapped out my current location and the location of my next meeting. It then calculated the shortest route, adjusted for real-time traffic information, and hit me up with an alarm for EXACTLY (within 30 seconds) when I needed to leave to get to my next meeting on time. It was super-awesome and he was going to charge $6.99 for the app.
Dreamcrusher: “Um, why wouldn’t I just set a calendar reminder to alert me 30 minutes before my next meeting and just leave then and if I show up a little bit early, I can read the interwebz on my phone?”
“Because my app is cool and edgy and it gets you there exactly on time! Besides, you’re not my target market. I only target hip people who want to be uber-cool and show up exactly on time and show people my cool app is how they did that bit of scheduling magic and then that person buys the app and it goes totally viral!”
Right. Got it.
Look folks – if you want to win in the marketplace, focus on simplicity (twitter’s 140 characters anyone?). A few things to think about:
– What EXACTLY is the problem you’re trying to solve? Do a lot of people have it and want it to go away?
– What’s the CURRENT way they’re treating the problem? THAT’S your competition – it’s their next-best alternative relative to your proposed solution. THAT’S what your product has to beat (both from a capability and cost standpoint including accounting for switching costs).
– What’s the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM product you need to put on the market to solve the problem (pencil/tying socks/calendar reminder)? BUILD THAT and validate you have a solution that works.
Stop making product development so hard, complex, and confusing. You’re wasting investment dollars that instead could be used for marketing and scaling your much simpler (and cheaper to build) alternative product.
How have YOU dealt with the complexities of product development, overspecification, and scope creep? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
– Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC
Photo: Gears, chains, jacks, pulleys and widgets by Ken Figlioli
I couldn’t agree more. True coolness is simplicity. I started the development of our Flogenic water treatment system as a direct reaction to complicated electronic systems for treating water with stock solution. It is a simple device you attach and the float valve and it treats up to 90,000 L (23,000 gallons) simply. We have a US EPA label and are launching to farmers in UK today at Pig and Poultry show in Warwickshire.
What about going barefoot? That simplifies the sock problem and aleviate the need for shoes. LOL
Fun post Mike. Thanks