Business needs to Practice the tao of simplicity


To succeed, companies of all types have to learn how to help simplify consumers’ lives.


By Doreen Lorenzo


doreen_21FORTUNE — Every day we are inundated with ever more complex technologies in the products and services we are offered. Yet what we really crave is a return to simplicity and back-to-basics minimalism in design, form, and function.


Invoking the concept of simplicity might sound like heresy at a time when technology is generally regarded as a savior that makes our lives easier, more enjoyable and meaningful. That’s all true. But at the same time the onslaught of technology has also engendered big data, smartphones with a thousand features, and more apps to chose from than any sentient being could ever use in a lifetime. Our many digital devices come fitted with higher computational power and faster data communications than ever before. Cars are driving without us at the wheel. A wearable device monitors our heart rate, and our clothing is embedded with sensors.


The complexity of things has become so overwhelming that we want to turn it off. We want to enjoy the fruits of that technology in a simple and easy to understand way, whether it’s downloading movies or ordering takeout food for dinner. We can’t stop the march of complex technology — and in fact, we like the benefits that complexity brings us — but as designers, we realize that it’s time to keep that complexity neatly tucked away and out of sight.


Many services that do are hugely popular, like Netflix (NFLX) and Zipcar. And then there’s Snapchat, the fast-growing app that allows you to send photos that magically disappear within seconds of viewing. Users are now sending up to 200 million photos each day, which means this newcomer to the mobile messaging space is, in record time, rivaling Facebook (FB) in this service. You remember Facebook? My college-age daughter recently informed me thatFacebook is so, yesterday, while Snapchat is cool.


Here’s why: The fleeting, almost ephemeral connection that Snapchat offers is not only unique, but simple. How it works isn’t as critical as why it is so successful. Snapchat, says venture capital firm IVP, “creates a sense of excitement and an urgency of consumption that is rare in this era of information overload.”


Everyone can relate to being frustrated by an overly complex product experience. And today, we’re not just connected to a single product but to an ecosystem of multiple links and channels surrounding that product, which compounds the complexity. This is why products need to be simple too. Look at the disarmingly simple Nest thermostat from Nest Labs. In both looks (brushed metallic finish) and function (digital display and Wi-Fi connection) Nest transforms the otherwise mundane thermostat into an utterly simple yet stylish must-have smart device for your home.


At my firm, frog, our industrial designers are striving to create beautifully simple, elegant designs at a time when so many devices — our cameras, televisions and phones — have shrunken into flat, black lookalike rectangles. To imbue these rectangles with personality, designers must dig deeply to find the small, nuanced elements that will distinguish one from another. For the audio company Definitive Technology, for example, we developed a slim, compact portable speaker called Sound Cylinder whose unique cylindrical form, which acts as an integrated stand for any tablet, shifts the paradigm for Bluetooth speakers. To me, the simple name Sound Cylinder, says it all.


The products and services that I have detailed hit the sweet spot between exciting new technology and simple design, interaction and user experience. That will become increasingly important to businesses that want to capture consumer attention in a marketplace cluttered with products and services competing for attention. To do that we should never forget to wrap great technology in the basics of good form and function and looks. How simple.


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