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ThoughtPiece: Simplicity Sells

David Pogue, technology editor for the New York Times, once remarked that “simplicity sells.” All things considered, consumers generally opt for the most simple, elegant solution.

Consider Google: it’s the most valuable piece of web real estate in the world, and yet its home page is remarkably simple and basically unchanged from when it began. Google’s philosophy is to keep the complexity as far removed from the consumer as possible.

The iPod is another success story where simplicity has won out. There are more fully featured music players on the market, and there are ones that are less expensive, yet the iPod still beats them all, largely because it is perceived as the easiest to use.

Why did the BlackBerry win out as the portable email device of choice, and not, let’s say, the laptop or a Palm device? The BlackBerry attained an advantage in the market largely because it has been perceived as the simplest solution of its kind: the one that most easily syncs with your desktop, the one that offers the simplicity of push email, the one that offers the ease of operation using the track wheel (and now the track ball), all in a convenient to carry package.

Then there’s the concept of convergence, or putting as many related functions in one device as possible. This is desired only to the extent that it makes life easier on the user. Interestingly enough, people reject convergence when the operation of individual functions in one device is more difficult than carrying multiple devices that are easier to use. That is the reason why so many smartphone owners still buy iPods, even though their phones can play music. It’s often seen as easier to carry the iPod as a second device than to master the clumsy music interface on most smart phones.

As RIM branches out into the consumer smartphone market, what will largely determine their success is whether they are perceived as the one offering the greatest amount of simplicity. Of course, as they add the features that consumers expect, it gets to be more difficult to preserve simplicity of operation. To borrow another line from David Pogue, “easy is hard.”

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6 Responses to “ThoughtPiece: Simplicity Sells”

  1. Robb (RIMarkable)
    February 14th, 2007 09:47


    You are dead on. The BlackBerry has always been one of those devices that just worked. Before I started using a BlackBerry I was a die-hard Windows Mobile user and I could never understand how so many people were drawn to a device that “just sent email and made phone calls”.

    Well, the BlackBerry did those two things better than any other device out there and it is simple to use.

    RIM, however, has to take this same approach with new features that users are starting to expect on all phones, including the BlackBerry.

    RIM needs to go back to the drawing board with it’s media player. The process for which one must transfer music to the BlackBerry Pearl and the BlackBerry 8800 is combersome compared to what most people are used to.

  2. L. M. Lloyd
    February 14th, 2007 17:52

    I really don’t think the “simplicity sells” idea is much more than a cute catchphrase. If simplicity sold, Danger would be the undisputed leader, followed closely by Palm. If anything, I think the BlackBerry is shining proof that reliability beats simplicity any day of the week. BlackBerries are ANYTHING but simple compared to the competition! In fact, they are a royal pain to setup, they do not sync nearly as easily as a Palm device, and their UI has a pretty steep learning curve for a handheld device. I meet people all the time who have been carrying a BB for years, and still don’t know how to use half the features. I have never seen anyone who needed instruction to get up and running on a Palm, and I see plenty of people who I’m amazed can even read using a Sidekick, but even at companies with very smart employees, they have to do some orientation to get them up and running on BlackBerries, and it still requires someone doing support.

    No, the BlackBerry wins not because it is the simplest solution, but because it is the fallback solution that actually works as advertised.

  3. Thought
    February 14th, 2007 22:36

    Lloyd: interesting thoughts as always.

    However, surprise surprise, I beg to differ.

    First, I agree in the BB reliability factor. However, I would contend that consumers consider that as a simplification of their life. In short, reliability feels like simplicity to a user. The corollary of that is that unreliability feels like unnecessary complication in the life of the user. Therefore, I should have listed reliability as another factor in the simplicity equation.

    BB’s may be a pain to setup, but remember, the BB’s caught on first with the enterprise market and that means that the complexity of setup is left to the BES admins, the IT depts., etc. Bu to the end user, it has always seemed far simpler. I know many corporate users who are not tech savvy at all, but love using the BB and find it very easy to use.

    Let’s also remember that one selling point to this enterprise market is that the BB has been, up until recently, a device pretty much with a single purpose, namely email. That single purpose meant simplicity to the user base.

    As to syncing, perhaps I should have been more clear: when I noted the BB syncing with the “desktop”…again, I was thinking more of the corporate world and syncing with the corporate network servers. In this arena they nailed it down far better than Palm.

    As to your general point regarding ease of use, I profoundly disagree. When you state that many BB users don’t know how to use half the features, I would contend that this is true for the Palm, this is true for most smart phones, indeed most cell phones in general. With most tech devices these days, including your PC, most people do not use a large percentage of the features.

    I have also found, as mentioned above, that at least in the corporate world, most users take to the BB very easily, esp. since they do tend to use mostly the email function.

    So, sure there are other reasons contributing to the BB success story, including their security appeal to the enterprise market. However, I still contend that one of the main reasons the BB caught on in the first place was that so many users could pick them up and start sending and receiving emails. Again, a lot of this happened only due to more complex efforts of IT people behind the scenes, but that is another matter…that is not the end user.

    So yes I still believe that simplicity sells, esp in the tech consumer market.

  4. L. M. Lloyd
    February 15th, 2007 04:56

    I have to say, it seems to me your are completely stretching the definition of the word “simplicity” to fit the argument. Simplicity is simplicity, and reliability is reliability. One does not “feel” like the other, nor do consumers get one confused with the other. There are products in every single category on earth that rely on simplicity as their design ethos, and every time, users are willing to eschew simplicity if it will buy them reliability and functionality. Typically the “simplicity sells” platitude is the hallmark of the industrial designer who thinks that he doesn’t need any engineers, because his work alone will determine the success of the product. “Simplicity sells” is like the “Zen of Palm” that nearly took the company into the ground before they gave up some of that simplicity and started competing on features.

    As we have discussed before, the BlackBerry is one of those devices that is very internally consistent, and a such very easy to use ONCE you are used to it, however, it is not something you pick up and start using immediately without any effort. If you look at a new user of a Palm, or a Danger Hiptop, they are up and running within seconds of picking up the device. They have a very shallow learning curve, where at no point is there ever any “what do I do now” moment. As they get more comfortable with the device, they discover more features, without ever feeling challenged by the device. The BlackBerry, on the other hand, is like jumping off a cliff. When you put it in someone’s hand the first time, it is a torrent of questions. “How do I select something?” “Where is the menu?” “Why are all my messages in one place?” “How do I send an SMS?” “How do I see my saved messages?” “What does that little book icon at the top mean?” “What is a PIN, and how do I send one?” It goes on for a while. Once everything is explained, then everything goes smooth enough, but it is not what I would call the very image of simplicity. However, unlike a Palm or Hiptop, it does do exactly what you tell it to, and it does it as expected for days without a recharge. That is why it wins out, no matter how much simplicity it lacks.

    Also, I will point out that I’m not entirely sure that Enterprise sales are in fact RIM’s base anymore. I mean, they will always be RIM’s base in the political sense, but I actually think their individual sales might outnumber their corporate sales at this point. I don’t have any hard numbers to back that up on hand, but I do seem to remember reading some article somewhere a while back that their ‘consumer’ sales now accounted for more than 50% of their revenue. Anyway, I don’t think that end users are as insulated from the complexities of the BlackBerry as you suggest they are. For the ‘consumer’ user, they have no IT to take care of it, and at the corporate level, while the user might have IT taking care of everything for them, management is far from oblivious to the cost of all that IT management. I would still say that BlackBerries win in the market in spite of their lack of simplicity, and because of their features and reliability. In fact, I think you will find that for most BlackBerry users, both corporate and ‘consumer,’ the BlackBerry was not the first choice when it came to mobile email, it was the final choice, after none of the “simpler” solutions were able to deliver the goods like the BB could.

  5. Thought
    February 15th, 2007 09:11

    Lloyd: fair enough in that you disagree with my characterization of simplicity. I still maintain that reliability feels like a savings in simplicity to most people, and that the lack thereof feels like a complication to most people. In essence, reliability simplifies peoples lives versus what they would have with a lack of reliability. But again, that is a conceptual and semantic point.

    As to the learning curve of the various devices: I still maintain that it has been the experience of people I know, who are not tech savvy, who get BB’s at work, to pick them up and very quickly use them, without a whole lot of a learning curve. In fact, these same people would have at least the same learning curve picking up something like a Palm device and learning that, because they are not gadget type of people. Many of those same questions you list…like “what is that icon” or “how do I send an SMS” people would ask of the Palm device, or any other.

    This also brings me to my other point: because the BB is often distributed as a work device to various employees, it means that these are thrust into the hands of a lot of people who are not inclined to be gadget-oriented. However, those who buy a Palm device are in most cases individual consumers who are inclined to be gadget savvy. So it might seem that many of those who use a BB have more of a learning curve than people picking up those other devices. However, again, that has not been the experience I have seen myself, but it may explain something of what you have witnessed.

    However, I still believe my main thesis: the BB took off in large part because so many people, mostly corporate users, were able to embrace its use due to ease and simplicity of operation. As Robb notes, here was a device that did few things but did those things well. If it had been so complex to operate, it never would have taken off.

  6. scott schmitz
    March 23rd, 2007 20:10

    I couldn’t agree more. Too often the inner geek in us wants more features. And I think software developers are too quick to add features. When was the last time that a developer removed features?

    I think this is why Apple products are considered the paragon of user friendliness. They are usually not the nost featureful products out there, but they are usually the easiest to use. I think that’s a great concept.

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