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Make Your Customer Experience "Uncomfortably Simple"

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Eric Dodds

An internal email sparked an interesting conversation among a few of the technophiles and designers here.

A short comment about the Microsoft Surface (there’s my post SEO) started it all:

  • Interesting concept from Microsoft. They completely ripped off the iPad’s smart cover – but it’s nice that they’re bringing it to another level by integrating a keyboard.

That garnered this response:

  • Isn’t it so interesting how Apple’s ‘lack’ of features sets them apart? More feature-packed products can’t seem to compete.

People have written about this with much more authority and eloquence, but I think there’s a great lesson to remember when we create things for people.

Bear with me while I get nerdy for a moment:

As I thought about features, I realized that in many situations lack of features helps you focus on content. Take, for example, Text Edit (1), which is one of my favorite Mac programs. (For those of you not familiar, it is an incredibly stripped-down text editor – about as basic as they get) I use it as my starting point for anything involving writing – meeting notes, blog posts, website copy, etc. There are a myriad of other programs that have awesome (and very useful) features, but for some reason I always find myself going back to the simplest one, and I think it’s because it’s a white square with words in it – the only thing to focus on is what I’m making.

I’m not a designer, but I think that sometimes (or many times, rather), features draw our focus to the product as opposed to what we’re doing with the product. In that sense, good design would be getting all of the unnecessary things out of the way, even if it makes things uncomfortably simple.

Back to the Surface / iPad comparison: a keyboard allows you to do certain things or achieve speed or efficiency that you can’t with the iPad. But one of the reasons that both my 2.5-year old nephew and my 90-year old grandmother use an iPad is because it doesn’t have a keyboard. That complication is completely removed.

What’s really interesting, though, is how uncomfortable it is to untether ‘core’ elements of a product or experience to achieve greater simplicity. For most of the computer’s history, the idea of some sort of external keyboard input device has been associated with it without question. For many, it was hard to imagine ‘computer’ without ‘keyboard,’ much less a device with a single button.

Over the last year and a half, Brains on Fire has been building a project with the National Center for Family Literacy called Wonderopolis (2). Making any significant impact on literacy is a horribly complicated problem in and of itself, and finding a solution that isn’t complicated is, well, really hard.

As I thought through features and design, I realized that our solution for NCFL followed the same pattern of a solution so simple, it was almost uncomfortable: provide kids (and their parents and teachers) one question a day that opens the door to exploration.

Honestly, it made me a little uneasy. Literacy is important, and all of us feel better when there’s structure in place to make sure it’s happening. Wonderopolis isn’t a program, and there’s no track or curriculum.

Interestingly, though, those structures are already in place, and in many cases, they’re not working. Adding more ‘features’ to the situation may have made people feel better or more comfortable, but ultimately, they wouldn’t have gone very far in making an impact.

It turns out that simplifying the problem to accomplish one goal (encourage imagination and exploration) set the stage for the existing structures to work better. Exploration encourages learning, and learning requires literacy.

My lesson this week: are we adding anything to the projects, experiences, or messages we create that actually pull focus away from what we’re really trying to accomplish for clients and customers?

(1) – You can read about the ever-amazing Text Edit here.
(2) – You can find Wonderopolis here.

CustomerManagementIQ contributor Eric Dodds also blogs at BrainsOnFire, for which he serves as community chemist.