Simple Minds
Here's a clue for product designers: The key to making smart stuff is including more features, not fewer.
By Paul Kedrosky

(Business 2.0) – The simplicity cult has it wrong. From industrial design to software, it's become accepted wisdom that products must be made simpler. (Anyone go to the recent ETech or Demo conference?) It's not true. The simplicity cult has been reinforced by three coincident market and technology forces. First, most people use only a fraction of the features of their software; by some estimates, the average Microsoft Word user regularly employs about 10 percent of that product's myriad features. Simplify! Second, while optimists call this the age of continuous partial attention, pessimists think we're all overstimulated children who need someone to take the info-candy away. Simplify! Finally, there's the iPod, with its finger-scrollable touchwheel that does everything from selecting songs to adjusting volume. It plays music so well and so cleanly. Simplify!

The solution is obvious, right? Not so fast.

Consider airbags. Most people will drive cars their entire lives and never once have an airbag inflate. Most reasonable people would concede that that's just fine and the only bad thing would be if the bag did not inflate in an accident. Otherwise, who cares? The airbag is insurance for the unusual event, so all that matters is that it's there. But it's superfluous, so why aren't the simplicity goons arguing to eliminate the airbag from cars? The answer, of course, is that airbags are too important to be left out of cars, even if they aren't used as often as coffee-cup holders. So long as they don't get in the way of normal day-to-day driving, few car owners would have the airbags uninstalled. Granted, most of the less used features in the average word processor aren't lifesavers on the order of car airbags, but you get the idea: As long as features are useful and don't get in the way, it's much more rational to keep them around.

What we learn from airbags, then, is that the solution isn't to eliminate features from products or to reduce the amount of information we receive. The solution is to have more features and more information in ways that are less intrusive and more carefully prioritized. Not every e-mail has the same importance; not every product feature needs to be dangling in my face at every moment. The key isn't to treat customers like idiots who must be prevented from hurting themselves, but instead to treat them like people who will grow and mature in their use of your product.

So who has this figured out? Not Apple. Its overlauded products are highly disposable straitjackets. Other companies, like software provider Iotum, of Ottawa, Canada, treat users as having more on the ball than merely the ability to finger-spin an iPod controller. Iotum recognizes that people are buried in e-mail, voice, and instant messages, so it tries to prioritize and control all those messages based on type, sender, and what you're doing at that moment. Fast, simple, and cheap--that's the right way to do it: Treat customers like adults who need better tools, not like children who can't be trusted to make choices.

The current obsession with simplicity beats making products stupidly complex. But it's built on at least one false premise, that less is more. More is more, and it always has been and always will be. Good products can and should be feature-rich, laden with information, and easy to use. But, hey, go ahead and keep talking up simplicity--that way your competitors will produce underconfigured toys that you can later whip in the market.

Paul Kedrosky is the executive director of the William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement at the University of California at San Diego and a VC with Canadian firm Ventures West.