Simplify, simplify, simplify.

I spent three days this week with a rather intense migraine. Hovering between pain and vertigo, I had an idea for a blog post I wanted to write. I blathered into Dragon Dictation on my iPad, only to realize I was rambling on about a subject that needed simplicity.  So I waited to write when I was cogent.

I believe that Ken Segall’s upcoming book likely covers some of the same area I’m about to – albeit in more depth, and from an experienced Apple veteran’s point of view. We’ll see after it ships.

Last October, I had a really incredible insight while talking with two Microsoft customers who have done amazing things with a product – with SharePoint, in fact. They’ve made their businesses work better by taking the needs of their users to heart. Not throwing technology at them – but building solutions. But this was deeper. It was something I had completely missed about simplicity and end users for years. It’s something that I had to think is key to Apple’s present success.

Here is a 3 step process that I believe exposes the simple process to build technology experiences that people fall in love with.

  1. Understand the task a user wants to get done. Not 2 tasks. Not 3. A single task.
  2. Build functionality to get that task done. No more, no less.
  3. Ship it.

As I was thinking about this while driving earlier today, this idea came to mind:

It’s better to do one thing really well instead of two things half-assed.

Before the iPhone, we had phones that tried to do 1,001 things, none of them particularly well. Honestly, they weren’t designed for us – for the end user. They were designed by carriers, for carriers. Many centralized most tasks around the contacts in your address book. But this is all wrong.

People rarely want to “contact”. Contact isn’t a verb. They want to place a phone call. They want to send a text message. They want to send an email. They want to surf the Web or use Twitter. The apps to accomplish those tasks on the iPhone are simple, logically named, and perform, generally that single task.

iOS is simple enough for a child to use without any experience because it breaks down the fundamental verbs – the tasks that users ever want to get done, and melds them into distinct apps for each task. The single modal app design of iOS feels limited to some, and yet is  inviting to many who feel overwhelmed with innumerable app windows vying for their attention, or for those struggling to focus on a single task at a time.

Doug McIlroy, the creator of Unix pipes, once wrote, “Write programs that do one thing and do it well.” While one can assume McIlroy was probably speaking of the command-line at the time, the adage translates even better to the GUI, where you can, and often should, assume a user who may not be comfortable with technology.

Don’t add bells and whistles. Don’t offer two ways to do something when one way will do. Instead, understand the distinct tasks your end users are trying to accomplish, and build experiences (not software) that help them accomplish those tasks.

Don’t make the user learn how to use your software. Learn how they want to get things done. Help them do those things. Watch. Learn. Build. Iterate.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.


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