It takes guts to keep it simple

Consumers are beginning to fight back almost instantaneously through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs when they sense that a company is hoodwinking them through a fog of fine print," writes Alan Siegel in Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. For this reason, he says, 2013 is a “pivotal moment" for simplification.

Siegel writes that companies can cut through the clutter and offer a better consumer experience by following a three-step process—empathize to really understand customer needs, distil what is most important about their product or service and resist the temptation to add extra features, and clarify or give key information up front, creating summaries and organizing it by theme.

Siegel has co-authored the book with Irene Etzkorn, executive director, leadership, simplification, at his New York-headquartered firm siegel+gale.

In a chapter titled “Distill", Siegel and Etzkorn explain: “To simplify is to curate, edit—and lessen the options and choices that overwhelm." Edited excerpts:

Simple—Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: By Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, Random House, 237 pages, Rs 499
Simple—Conquering the Crisis of Complexity: By Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn, Random House, 237 pages, Rs 499

But why was Google the only one to make its search page so simple and uncluttered? Shouldn’t other search firms have done likewise with their offerings? If, in this case, less is clearly more, then why not just offer less? It would seem to be not only the smartest but also the easiest option for a company producing a search page.

But in fact it can be much harder to simplify. So how did Google resist the temptation to add on and complicate? We talked to the Mountain View, California–based company about this, and learned a couple of surprising things.

Google didn’t just stumble into its home page design; it didn’t arrive at simplicity by default. The company actually developed a rigorous system that imposed tight restrictions upon what could and could not be added to the page. Its leaders had to stand firm against Google’s own creative and well-meaning engineers. And in some cases they even had to defy the wishes of customers. This ongoing task of holding the line against complexity—which often involves being willing to “just say no" to additional features, design flourishes, and other potential complications—often fell to Marissa Mayer, until recently the company’s director of consumer Web products. When we spoke to Mayer about how she managed this, she surprised us by using a word you tend to hear from theatrical casting directors, not tech managers.

Mayer explained that any potential new feature hoping to get on the Google home page must go through an “audition". First the feature is tried out on Google’s advanced search page to see how it performs there. But even if the new idea demonstrates its viability in the advanced search, it still goes through a tough scoring system developed by Google.

Here’s how the scoring system works:

1. They assign a point for each change in type style, type size, or color.

2. They add the points; the maximum allowed for a promotion is three points.

The goal for the home page is the fewest possible number of points. As Mayer says, “More points equals less simplicity." This stripped-down approach could easily lead to a home page that would be pristine but devoid of humanity. Google’s page is anything but that. Millions of people log on to the Google home page just to see the ever-changing dressing of its logo. Google understood that while many elements on the home page could be considered extraneous, it was important to have something—even just one small, playful touch—that would convey the brand personality. In many ways, Google is a utility like toothpaste, but as Mayer says, “Imagine if your toothpaste tube had unpredictable, whimsical designs on it." That would change your perception of the toothpaste maker.

The company is so focused on simplicity that it refuses to be led astray—even by its own customers. For example, when Google surveys users to see if they wanted more search results per page, they invariably say yes—who wouldn’t want more results to choose from? But, Mayer says, “We don’t give it to them."

Google knows that offering more results will take longer to load, which will slow down and ultimately diminish the user’s experience—even if most people don’t realize this. “Customers often don’t understand the consequences of their choices, but it is our job to do so," Mayer says. “We figured out that ten results per page is the right number. We don’t change that." In other words, Google has the guts to give customers less, even when they ask for more.

Simplification is often about narrowing the scope of what you offer as you try to serve those needs. Successful simplifiers distill whatever they’re offering down to its essence. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of simplification, because distillation requires focus and discipline in the face of the constant temptation to add on, expand, and complicate.