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Simplicity beats complexity every time

Last week I was talking to a Web developer and used one of my favorite UI words: disambiguate. Its meaning: to differentiate among a set of items or choices, to clearly understand the meaning or purpose of each element, of each choice.

In the context of my conversation with the developer, I said readers had no evident way to differentiate among the tabs of a particular Web interface. The words “features,” “newsletters,” and “articles” might mean something to the editorial staff of the site, but they aren’t easily disambiguated by site visitors. In other words, it was bad UI.

A day later, I talked with an entrepreneur who is developing a new consumer electronics product. He is struggling over the feature set, the integration of software and hardware, and the interface to both. In consumer electronics, I argued, no matter how much software technology is involved, the interface is the hardware’s external design and it was important — and here I got to use that word again — to disambiguate the buttons and the display menu items so the device was super simple to use.

It is hard to disagree with that position, and the entrepreneur didn’t try. Instead, he agonized over which features and functions to include in the product. Certainly, he would design the device so it would be easy to use. But at the same time, he wanted to pack value into the product. There was so much that this new device could do, after all, and he wanted to include enough features so his customers would have a great experience with the product.

Here’s where the arguing got a bit tougher. I argued that consumers will have a better experience with a product that offers fewer features. A better customer experience comes from elegantly designed products that excel at a core set of functions. Value is not judged by how much a product can do, but rather by how well a product does what it is supposed to do. This is particularly true in the so-called convergence space (If you are interested in the dynamics of choice, I recommend the book “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz).
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Certainly, there are a small fraction of high-end computer-phile customers who buy bells and whistles by the pound. They want their electronics programmable and complex. And I would wager they number something less than 10% of the over all market for digital media and home electronics products. The rest of us want well-designed products that work right out of the box.

If you agree with that, then the challenge — for the entrepreneur I was talking with and for every product developer — is to determine what features to add and what to leave out. It is a difficult choice. After all, new consumer electronics are built on general-purpose computing platforms — they really can do everything. The harder — and correct — choice is choosing what not to include.

In effect, what we say no to — as product designers, marketers, analysts, reviewers and buyers — determines just how quickly the vision of the digital home becomes reality. Products that are complex and difficult to use will set back the market another 10 years as piles of beautiful, feature-rich devices sit in warehouses unsold — or worse, returned by customers. Investors and customers will point to these failures and deem them ahead of their time.

That would be a wrong and sad conclusion. The time is right now for digital home products — but well-designed, clearly defined, high value and disambiguated products.

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Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld's DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMOletter and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at chris@demo.com. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984 and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the #1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.

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