Simplicity – A Very Complex Problem

The holy grail of almost every product and service is simplicity. After all, nobody sets out to create a complicated product. But with digital success so squarely predicated on  engagement and user experience, simplicity has evolved from being an unstated philosophy to a raucous war-cry, uttered often and fervently in board-rooms and product meetings, and KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) signs adorning complex project plans. 

Yet, simplicity remains a fiendishly complex challenge. 

Simplicity is a loaded term, it typically refers to things which are basic, or easy to use, or intuitive. It can be interpreted as doing things that bring calmness. In the Indian epic Mahabharata, Judhishtir was so named because he could be calm, in battle. We are usually able to point to examples of simplicity. Whether it’s a home-cooked meal, or the joy of a sunset, our favourite beverage consumed in our favourite chair. The consensus for simplicity in products, tends to be towards intuitiveness. Something that does not require education, training or a manual for example, the Nokia phones and an the iPhone, both in their way wonderfully intuitive. The power of simplicity is also obvious. Simplicity drives acceptance and adoption. It is the reason why soccer is the worlds favourite game, or why the world wide web is indeed world-wide. Simplicity for many people is a deeply held philosophy. For some it is typified by a child like state. 

One might argue that simplicity is born, not created. Some people have a great ability to make things appear incredibly simple. Listen to Alex Fergusson speak about football strategy and tactics, and it will seem like anybody could have done it. And yet, he stands ruthlessly alone in his decades-long and consistent success as a football manager. Closer to home, one of my closest friends from childhood, Kabir, is a well respected and successful leader in the retail industry in India. There are two things I will always remember about Kabir. Almost 20 years ago, when he was a middle manager, handling a menswear category, I asked him why he didn’t stock shoes in his store and he said there was too little return per square-foot of space, where space is the most expensive part of retail, in India. I used to tease him about his fascination about returns per square foot but he had already drilled down to the nub of the problem. The other vivid memory from about the same time, was walking into his office and seeing his desk, an expanse of table surface with nothing but a desk-phone. For somebody like me, who lives and works in perma-clutter, this has always been a utopean and other-worldly fantasy. We see examples of simplicity all around us – Steve Jobs famously had a home environment that embodied simplicity. Mark Zuckerberg’s wardrobe rationale is now well known. Living simple clearly has a contribution to make to your output. But those who can simplify effectively often are seemingly able to reach a higher plane of thinking about a problem. 

Some people naturally simplify, some don’t analyse it, but can go with the flow, for some it’s not desirable – simplicity isn’t a universal desire. It’s not a panacea. But clearly it only makes sense in context. Hence, like beauty, it depends on the eye of the beholder. It may be contextual – if you give a hunter-gatherer a plough, she may not know what to make of it. To a farmer, it may be intuitive. It stands to reason therefore that to design something simple you must be able to see it from the users frame of reference, and appreciate his or her skill and capability. It also means that a way of solving complex problems is to change the frame of reference. Not surprisingly, some of the quoted methods involve asking ‘what would a child do?’ or ‘what would granny do?’. Seen this way, simplicity implies a kind of innocence. A happy naïveté even. Einstein’s warning is probably relevant here. “You must make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Over-simplification is a trap to avoid – lest you bore the user. And of course, when your toddler son or daughter asks you how babies are made, you  are caught in the very vortex of the problem of simplification. 

There are probably tomes of scientific papers dealing with simplicity and complexity. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 thinking is an obvious surrogate for simplicity. The purpose of this post is not to delve into the scientific understanding of how we deal with simplicity, although it would probably be a useful perspective to add. 

The problem is, while many of know how we would define it, and almost all of us would recognize it if we saw it, very few are able to find the path to it. And yet, simplicity is as much a journey as a destination. 

The next time, when you switch on your TV set at the end of a long week and settle in to watch a primetime show on Saturday night, maybe the next series of Breaking Bad, all you’ll need to do is switch on the TV, the set top box, and find the right channel. But for the broadcaster, the process may have started almost a year before. In fact considering the complexity of a broadcast operation – including all the scheduling, planning, program acquisition, ad-sales operations, the movement of physical and digital media, transcoding, automation and transmission, compliance and legal and other areas, it is an everyday miracle that you switch the TV on and there’s something there to watch. (And this is without even considering the effort and challenge of producing the show, manufacturing the TV set and getting the signal into your living room). 

Think of some of your other simple examples – withdrawing money from an ATM, receiving the newspaper at your door in the morning, turning the ignition key in your car; each of these and a hundred more simple tasks often mask an ocean of complexity that goes on unnoticed behind the scenes. This is the first lesson of simplicity. Often, to make something simple, especially for an end user of a product or process, you have to take on and resolve an enormous amount of complexity. Personally speaking, nothing annoys me more than managers who cut short a discussion around a problem by claiming the faux high-ground of simplicity. Complexity doesn’t vanish, it gets resolved, in great detail, by somebody else, and kept under the hood, so you can just turn a key or press a button to start a car. 

In the lives we live today, simplicity is often reductive – it involves removing the noise and complexity. Very rarely is our starting point for anything we’re trying to design, simple. We need to untangle, and even unlearn. And more often than not, it’s a journey. A sentiment echoed by a lot people who responded to my request for interpreting the term. Achieving simplicity is therefore, anything but simple. Especially so, for an organisation or a group, rather than an individual. It therefore involves the mastery of concepts such as minimalism, essentialism or lean. In each of these, we are trained to take Occam’s razor to a problem space. But it can take years of experience to arrive at a state where the eye can spot the waste and the extraneous. The second great lesson of simplicity therefore is the wisdom of spotting the signal in a sea of noise. Or conversely, identifying the waste from the core. This is as true of everyday life, as it is of product design. 

Identifying the waste is just a part of the problem. Sometimes, the far greater challenge is the choice making. To deliver the shiny elegance that is the iPhone, Steve Jobs & co had to make some pretty big choices. An obvious one amongst them being the complete inability of the user to add memory, or change the battery of the phone. Features as core to a phone, you might think, as a leg, to a table. And yet, this was the stark choice exercised by Apple. When was the last time you let go of something significant, to achieve simplicity? 

There are some very successful digital platforms and products out there who owe their success at least to a significant part to their simplicity. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dropbox, Evernote, Trello, and Spotify as some of the highly popular and simple products. The bar for simplicity can often be reset. is a platform which has succeeded because it greatly simplified the sales management process, but today, if you look at tools like Pipedrive, they make salesforce look like the older, complex model. Remember Einstein’s wisdom about ’no simpler’ – and yet, this can be redefined and barriers can be broken. The journey is the point. 

You only have to look at some of the most successful products, apps and websites to understand how visually simplicity works. From fonts and colours, to choices and tasks, there is now as much science as art to creating the intuitive usability in products that we all crave. But of course, simplicity does not start and end on the screen, it needs to be carried through a range of interactions and experiences. Is it simple to speak with somebody on the phone? Is it simple to return goods? Pay a bill? Find information? Upgrade? Downgrade? And remember for each of these, the simpler you make it, the more complex it often is, behind the scenes. 

A part of the problem is that there is no formula. Most people tend to view simplification as decluttering, removal, or reduction to the basics or essentials. Yet, while this idea is by itself appealing, there are times when simplicity may come through synthesis. Remember the story about the blind men and the elephant. Or imagine trying to describe a car by it’s components. Sometimes simplicity comes from the whole, rather than the parts. Focusing on the whole provides clarity of thought. 

And then there’s the problem of time. What starts of as simple invariably grows complex. Just look at the number of sects of any major religion. Or consider Twitter – from the idea of creating a simple 140 character update, an entirely new language, syntax and ontology of acronyms has risen. Reading a tweet is anything but simple today. It is human nature to complicate, it seems, so the yin and yang of simplicity and complexity must coexist, over time. 

The bottom line is, whether you treat simplicity as a philosophical foundation of your life, or a professional preference, and whether it manifests in your relationships or your products, its clear that you may need to treat it as a series of simplifications and pay as much attention to the process as the outcome. And the journey may be far from easy, and paved with false results. After all, as HL Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. 

Digi-Tally: Through My Digital Viewfinder, Jan 21, 2015

This is still the week of the CES after-glow, and there’s a lot of reflection in the media about what we saw at CES. In a nutshell, and as summarised in the TWIT podcast, no tablets and more cars. Autonomous vehicles has been one of the areas that has moved forward quicker than most of us had anticipated and may have great positive externalities by way of enabling a sharing economy for transport. In much the same way as the word “television” has been redefined in the past decade, we may be entering a similarly transformative phase for ‘automobiles’. It may well be a reaffirmation of the name – a self driving car is after all truly auto-mobile. But increasingly we may start to see the car as a network, a node on a larger network, or a collection of smart (and inter-changeable) components. On the other hand the broader IOT examples keep mushrooming, and we’ll no doubt be exposed to weird and wonderful examples of the power of Internet of Things – from smart security to home automation, and from wearable health and wellness monitors to self managed environments.

It’s also been the week for spotlighting the great transition of technology eras – as we move from the PC & desktop era into the untethered, wireless, mobile and ubiquitous computing era, the struggles of Intel and IBM amongst the behemoths of the 90s and 00’s are sharply in focus. Intel shipped over 100m chips, but are still dramatically dependent on the shrinking PC market. They’ve made an entry into the wearables, tablets and sensors space (interestingly, by acquiring a Chinese firm), but the numbers are still small and analysts aren’t convinced yet. IBM have just announced a 11th straight quarter of declining revenues. The slowdown is precipitated by the hardware business, with the digital arms, including mobile, security and cloud showing strong growth but very low numbers. Overall, a 16% growth in “digital” is probably not good enough, and the combined weight of 27% is impressive, but you sense that the bits that are big aren’t growing fast enough and that the parts that are growing well, aren’t big enough, to actually create an overall positive outlook for IBM just yet. At Cognizant, we often speak about the shifts of the “S-curves” we are currently in between the Web era S-curve (dominated by fixed wireless and PCs) to a digital S-curve – dominated by ubiqutous, nano-computing and wireless connectivity. Intel and IBM’s challenges are symptomatic of the difficulty of transitioning success from one wave to the next. But to state the blindingly obvious, they will not be alone. How will your business make this jump?

I continue to believe that 2015 will be a year of digital infrastructure. Broadly speaking this should include cloud, middleware and security, for most large enterprises. Of these, security has been much in the spotlight of late, with Sony obviously being the most high-profile victim. But arguably, despite the political intrigue and the alleged involvement of North Korea, the hacking of the US Central Command should be more akward, geopolitically speaking. This list of famous hacks from The Telegraph has some fascinating nuggets. From the unintentional Morris worm (Morris is now a professor at MIT), to the Target and Sony Hacks of the last 12 months. Two trends stand out. The first is the increasingly political colour of the hacks – indicating that this is now a serious form of warfare or international espionage. The second is the simplicity of many of these hacks. DDOS, phishing, these aren’t particularly sophisticated attacks, but they indicate that as humans we often represent the threats and weak links in the security environments of our organisations.

The HBR carried this great example of the success of Nordstrom’s digital strategy. I think all success stories tend to get over-simplified to an impractical level, in our hunt to find an easy formula. Usually there are dozens, if not hundreds of things that need to go right for a major project to work well, and it only takes a few to not work well, for it to be a limited result or an outright failure. This is why we have many more failures than successes of course. So while I agree about the arguments in this piece, I would hesitate to consider this as a necessary and sufficient condition for digital success. Nordstrom’s strategy comprises of a focus on customer experience, and the extensive use of digital (SMACIT) tools across the length and breadth of the business, to effectively create a new business model. As always, both God and the devil lie in the details.

And what should we make about Google’s change of tack on Google glass? It was initially interpreted as Google pulling the plug on a venture with mixed success, which it has a history of doing. But it seems apparent now that Google are taking a leaf out of Apple’s book and going design-first. By handing this product to Tony Faddel, of Nest and iPod fame, Google seem to be acknowledging that the technology (which works) needs to be nested inside a highly usable, and ideally beautiful product. This is hardly a revelation but if this is indeed the thinking, then it’s wonderful to see Google, the spiritual home of engineers, acknowledge the role of design and user experience.

Also, at CES, there was much buzz about more wearables – watches from Sony and HTC, and other devices. Smart watches look like being the wearable de l’annee, but the hunt for the killer app is still on. Any guesses? What would you use a smart watch for? What problem could you solve? Or what wonderful new benefit could you imagine? Like many others now, I don’t wear a watch to being with, so it would have to be a compelling benefit to make me wear a watch again (one more device to manage!).

It would be remiss of to not mention this video from Ola Cabs in India which a colleague kindly sent me. It’s refreshing to see such a stark focus on user experience from an engineering point of view, rather than design alone. Anybody looking to build a product should see this.

And finally, on a lighter note, this set of maps, yet another example of the emotive power of data in our lives, my favourite is the first map, on second languages spoken in the boroughs of London. Amongst other things, it shows you the patterns of immigration and the abundance of Indian and Polish people in London. May be there needs to be a new alliance for the IPOs (people of Indian and Polish Origins) a microcosm of a geo-political shift, a trading block and a platform for cultural enrichment hitherto overlooked. I mean, all this technology, data and understanding should bring us closer, right?

Doing Digital: 10 Starting Points

There is an alluring future that digital enthusiasts like us love to project. It involves the excellent and industry shaping use of analytics and big data, whist getting our customers and consumers to love us on web, mobile and social platforms and willingly offering us their data so we can turn it into ever more gasp-worthy products. In this world, we’ve magic-wanded away the infrastructure challenges, the silos and politics of real businesses, the cultural inertia and significant technological challenges.

Most companies that I know get this picture and they agree with the destination but have no idea about the journey. Most importantly, they don’t know where to start. Here are 10 recommendations / observations for getting your digital show on the road.

(This post comes from an opportunity I had to speak about digital recently. At the time of writing this, I’ve identified at least double this number of recommendations, but for the purpose of this piece, here are 10 basic ones). 

Understanding How Digital Is Different:

  1. Digital is creative and emotional: Traditional IT works from process outwards, building on conformity and compliance, and the focus is on the logic of the solution, and it’s efficiency. Digital starts with the user journey inwards, building on individual creativity and embracing diversity of users and behaviours. The focus is on engagement, and getting users to use your product, over the many viable options available to them. Consequently this is about the emotional connect to the user. The only right solution is the one that engages your users. One of my favourite examples is the “get me home” button on the national rail app. It ticks the boxes for emotional responses while also enabling a context sensitive and customised response all at once. 

  2. Digital is lean. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the digital explosion is synchronous with the widespread adoption of lean and agile thinking. In the way that technology landscape is morphing and changing, it is far more important to be agile than to be right. You can be right once, bur it’s likely you’ll be wrong often. On the other hand, lean methodologies allow us to live with change and learning. This is why Evernote which performs that most basic task of taking notes (and on which I’m actually composing this piece) is able to succeed against a Microsoft, Apple and a hundred other note taking softwares. Most of the digitally successful companies I’ve worked with have started small but innovated fast and often. 

  3. Digital is Di-Phy. An increasingly intermingled amalgam of digital and physical environments. When thinking of solution architecture, we not only have to think about software, OS and hardware, but also of the physical environment in which the solution exists. An excellent and simple example of this is the QR codes on London bus-stops which when scanned, indicate bus times. It’s a highly responsive system which is actually faster than the otherwise excellent bus-timing applications which exist. But one which requires thinking through the solution, user experience, deployment and use, across the physical and digital elements.

How To Do Digital

  1. Start anywhere but start now: Many people I know agonise over which business processes to start with first. While you could certainly spend a few days in shortlisting the most critical user journeys that define your product or service, it’s probably more important that you start soon, rather than start with the right process. Start anywhere, somewhere, but start today. Transform one user journey. This will typically necessitate new processes and changes to existing processes. It might even lead to the creation of new products or services. Most importantly this will create a significant number of new digital touch points which will be sources of new data. 

  2. Digital Infrastructure is critical: The digital tools usually get the most amount of attention – mobile, social, sensors, and more. But you need to consider a stratification within the tools. The three mentioned above and project-level analytics can be considered at a project level. However, you also need to consider the digital infrastructure layer, which should be addressed at an enterprise level. This includes cloud, security and middleware as well as enterprise analytics. The last of these deserve special mention and we’ll come back to it. But cloud, security and middleware are critical to almost every project, yet are best managed as a common, infrastructure layer, where the investment can be shared between a number of projects. Cloud solutions can be used in the enterprise to enable any number of services for projects to consume, so the benefits are more than just the cost savings of scale. Middleware includes both MBaaS products (e.g. Kidozen, Anypresence) and API Management ones (ApiGee), for example. Security needs to be thought end to end, including authentication and identity management, especially in a multi-device, cloud based environment. Most companies still seem to be underinvesting in digital infrastructure. I believe 2015 may be the year that digital infrastructure may become front and centre for CIOs. 

  3. Meaning Making is the promised land: Ultimately this game will boil down to the quality of data you collect, the efficiency and effectiveness of algorithms you can write and the new meanings and insight you can create, to serve customers better. However, starting off with a ‘big data’ project may not be the right approach. You also need to improve the quality and depth of your own data, which is best done through digital touch points. The Code Halo (TM) model recommends that you create an inventory of touchpoints. The Mobile Moments Model from Forrester Analysis suggests identifying those specific points where you can change a customer perception or experience via mobile led experiences. You get the drift. You need to start with simple digital models, but keep at the back of your head that the goal is to feed that meaning machine you’re building. Make sure you identify and collect the right kind of data through each of your digital projects.

What do IT Departments & Vendors have to do differently?

  1. Engineering & Design Culture: This article by Mark Kawano, a former designer at Apple points out that contrary to popular belief, it’s not that Apple always employed the best design talent, but it was more that Apple had an engineering culture that viewed design and user experience. This happy confluence of engineering and user experience design philosophies has very powerful synergies. It means that engineers never build without thinking about user experience, so the bar is already set pretty high. It also means that any inputs from user experience experts is sought proactively, consistently and valued highly, as a part of the engineering and technology development process. Much of traditional IT still treats UX as a necessary evil that must be endured to “beautify” the great work that engineering has already done. This culture is prevalent across the vendor community as well as IT departments. As such it results in the proverbial ‘lipstick on a pig’, in terms of output. It is not a coindence that IBM are among the top recruiters of design talent right now, but it remains to be seen whether the average engineer sees user experience design as core to his or her work. 

  2. Stakeholder Complexity: Typically the stakeholder map of a digital project is very different from that of a traditional IT project. Suddenly you have marketing, communications, sales, LOB associates, and many others around the table, engaged in the minutiae of the execution. Consequently, you need to have project and program management of a very different kind – you need to speak the language of all these different groups of people and not rely on IT jargon. This is a slightly greater challenge for offshore providers as there are a few more linguistic and cultural barriers to cross. 

  3. Rejigging the commercial model: Most businesses work with budgets and ROI calculations. Vendors work with gross and net margin projections for programmes and clients. In digital projects, owing to the the stakeholder complexity as well as the uncertainties, it is imperative that we err on the side of over investment in managing the early stages of projects. Note, this is different from over investing in the solution or technology. It just means creating a stronger, more robust program & project management and user experience layers, to work through those initial hiccups. The project over it’s lifetime will in all probability more than pay back that earlier investment. Don’t look for project margins for the first 3 months. 

  4. Collaboration on steroids? Last, and certainly not the least, in this list, is the heightened need for collaboration. As white space opportunities open up, which don’t sit in the traditional industry vertical or horizontal boxes, there is an increased need for joined up thinking. Consider for example the connected home – part media, part utility, part telecom, it provides opportunities for entirely new value propositions comprising a wide range of technology solutions. The same would apply to Connected Cars, Smart Cities, or Wellness markets. Traditional IT departments and IT Vendors are long used to working in specific sectors and visible reward mechanisms. This kind of fuzzy collaboration with lack of clarity about the outcomes and rewards at an individual level, requires a mind shift from this traditional mode of thinking.

Once again, I can think of at least 10 more areas of difference, either in philosophy or in action, but we’ll save that for a later date!