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Designing Simplicity

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Creating simplicity can be harder than it looks. In the past few decades, the design of everything from automobiles to microwaves has gone through a continous process of “feature creep,” fueled by each company’s desire both to justify a higher price and to promote this year’s model as “new and improved.” In fact, many executives seem to equate innovation almost entirely with adding features.

Customers, however, crave simplicity in their lives. They are intimidated by filling out the complex forms created by government agencies and financial institutions. They get lost among the pull-down menus of business software systems cluttered with features that they might never use. A recent JD Powers survey of drivers showed that 1 in 5 had barely used half of the sophisticated features built into their new cars. And even in the tech-savvy Silicon Valley where I live, people will literally use the word “hate” when expressing intense frustration about the multiple television remote controls they must juggle, just to watch their favorite sporting event.  

Nowhere is the conflict between simplicity and feature escalation more intense than in the software industry. Since software features can often be loaded on at no variable cost, the temptation is to keep adding them. Reviewers love to show “feature charts” comparing competitive products, and of course software vendors like to have more checks marks than their rivals. But maybe, instead of adding features, we should be asking “How might we make our customers’ lives simpler and easier?” Sometimes, when it comes to features, less is more.

Not long ago, I met TJ Parker, CEO and Founder of an innovative pharmacy called PillPack. Using a human-centered design process while creating his company, Parker noticed how elderly people struggle with the process of taking multiple medications every day. (My 92-year-old mother takes more than a dozen pills daily, so I am very familiar with the challenge.) Typically, people get their prescriptions in individual bottles from a local pharmacy and then transfer them, one pill at a time, into an array of tiny square boxes arranged by day of the week and time of day. The process is tedious, time consuming, and—especially for the elderly—susceptible to error. So PillPack skips the bottles entirely, and ships customers their medicines already sorted and sealed inside individual plastic packets labeled with the day, date, and time. After signing up for PillPack’s service myself, I now have both my parents receiving their medications the same way. When I spoke to Parker recently at IDEO’s Cambridge, Massachusetts office (where PillPack had been a start-up-in-residence), I thanked him for making my life simpler. TJ smiled knowingly and said, “we wrestled with a lot of complexity to deliver that simplicity.” He reminded me of all the sophisticated equipment, complex software, and state-by-state regulatory approvals he’d had to organize behind the scenes. Maybe PillPack is doing what we all need to do more of: wrestle with complexity so that we can deliver simplicity to the people we serve. 

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