Silencing the Bells and Whistles

by Andrew McAfee on July 27, 2009

In a recent post at the paidContent blog, Tom Weber praises Amazon’s Kindle because it lets him return to ‘unitasking’ —  doing one thing at a time, in this case reading books, newspapers, and magazines. He writes that “Scrolling through an online newspaper or magazine can be like strolling down a state-fair midway, with dozens of options bleating for attention,” and he’s willing to pay for fewer options: “…I’ve been routinely purchasing some of these publications [on the Kindle] when I could have grabbed my laptop and read them for free on the web. In effect, I’m paying for the lack of distraction.”

Weber is highlighting how much value he gets from from using a technology that offers him fewer choices, not more. As I’ve written before, a lot of my favorite technologies have this characteristic: they present simplicity to me instead of complexity, and a small set of features instead of a large one. The iPod, Gmail, Delicious (or, as it was then known,, the Kindle and Twitter each seemed pretty straightforward to me when I started using them, and I think I kept using them in large part because of that simplicity.

Most technology developers don’t want to build swiss army knives —  products that do everything for everyone. Instead, they want to satisfy fairly tightly defined needs; they want to offer a music player, or webmail, or a book reader. So it can seem strange that we don’t come across more obviously simple products. Yet complexity, in the form of large feature sets and jam-packed user interfaces, still reigns in devices, applications, and sites.

I can think of at least three reasons why complexity in technology products is the status quo. First, technologies are not developed by normal people; they’re developed by technologists. And at the risk of oversimplifying and engaging in occupational profiling, geeks like complexity. They like the challenge of fitting a lot into a little, and they also like using the end products they and their peers at other companies come up with. It’s fun for them to learn about bells and whistles, or to master an opaque user interface (in their saddest delusion, they hope that others will find sexy their advanced tool-use abilities).

Relatively few geeks can put themselves in the shoes of a neophyte, and we really shouldn’t expect them to be able to. Very few people are able to step outside their own frames of reference and see with other eyes (in this BusinessWeek article, Google CEO Eric Schmidt talks about how important this ability is). This difficulty helps explain why tech companies have for a while now been hiring anthropologists, who are trained to observe the activities and interactions of culturally distant others and draw inferences from them.

“High tech anthropology” really started proving its value around 1981, when Xerox was trying to figure out why one of its new copiers was perceived as overly complex. Company managers blamed unsophisticated users (for neither the first nor the last time) and proposed adding more complexity to the machine in the form of a video display terminal. Berkeley graduate student Lucy Suchman managed to get one of the copiers installed at her university, and videotaped some people as they walked up to it and had a hard time figuring out how to run off a few copies. Legend has it that when they saw the tape, Xerox engineers dismissed these folk as too dumb to bother with; Suchman then identified them as a couple of the world’s foremost computer scientists. Legend further has it that this incident led to the single green ‘copy’ button that’s now standard on all Xerox copiers.

The second reason that technology products are typically so complex is that the minimum required functionality —  the smallest possible set of things that the product must do in order to be effective and popular — still seems quite large. The distinction between frivolous bells and whistles and absolutely required capabilities is not always clear up front, especially because of a very understandable tendency to conflate ‘requirements’ with ‘expectations’ and with ‘what other similar products already have.’ Email clients need folders, portable digital music players need song search capability, and PDAs need menus, don’t they? Sure they do, I thought, until the original versions of Gmail, the iPod, and the iPhone showed me that they don’t. It seems that a large part of the art of being a good technology designer is looking with fresh eyes at the idea of required functionality and being willing to leave some ‘required’ stuff out.

The third reason I can identify for tech product complexity is the hardest to address, because it seems to be rooted deep in our wiring as humans. It’s the fact that we think we like choice more than we actually do. Many people have commented on what social scientist Barry Schwartz has termed “The Paradox of Choice:” the mutually incompatible truths that we like having lots of alternatives, and yet we don’t. We crave choice while finding it paralyzing, and even disheartening.

The most powerful demonstration of this I’ve come across is a series of experiments conducted by the psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper and written up in their paper “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” I encourage you to read it (pdf here); it’s clearly written, and describes some fantastic work. Their most amazing experiment was one in which they offered one set of subjects a choice among 30 Godiva chocolates and a second set a choice among 6 of the same treats. Before choosing, after choosing, and after tasting they asked all subjects a bunch of questions.

People facing 30 chocolates reported that the process of choosing was more difficult and frustrating than did the people facing only 6. However, the people with 30 possibilities also reported that they enjoyed the decision-making process more. This finding confirms the widespread belief that we like having lots of options, even though we can find them a bit overwhelming. The punchline of the study, though, is that the people who were given fewer choices were more satisfied after they got to eat the chocolate they picked (Iyengar and Lepper took care to eliminate the possibility that this difference could have been due to the fact that all the really nasty chocolates were in the 30-choice set, but not in the 6-choice one.).

I find this study to have profound implications and a clear prescription: If we can somehow convince our target users and customers to turn away from their fondness for a proliferation of choices, we’ll leave them better off and more satisfied. But this convincing is far from easy because it runs counter to our hardwired preference for more.

Word of mouth seems particularly powerful for getting us to embrace simplicity (“You’re not using You gotta try it!” “I LOVE MY iPOD!”), as does trust in a technology provider’s brand / reputation (“I trust Google for search, so I’ll give Gmail a try.”). What else works? How have you seen technology companies (or, indeed, any companies) convince people to walk away from the complexity they desire and pick up a more limited alterntative?” Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you’ve observed.

A future post will expand on this topic and discuss how smart technologists start simple, then expand into greater complexity over time.

johnbennett July 27, 2009 at 11:46 am

Another great post! Thanks.

When I think of reducing choices for customers, I recall that one of the first things Steve Jobs did when he took over Apple in 1997 was to greatly simplify the product line. Under Jobs' predecessors, the Apple product line had grown into a tangle of product names and numbers, Quadra this and Centris that and Performa whatever. Even the salespeople had trouble keeping track of which model did what. Jobs boiled everything down to a few product names and models, and they've kept this simplicity ever since. A few models, a few choices for each that let the consumer weigh cost vs. power. And that's it.

Rajeev Koz July 27, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Flip's camcorders are another great example. Couple of observations – simplicity in use seems to be more important, the closer the buyer is to the actual user. Enterprise software is one obvious area where simplicity of acquisition/operation is much more important than the simplicity of user facing features. Also, there appears to be not much correlation between simplicity as defined by functional features and system complexity. (for eg: a google search vs. a relational db front end). May be its better to treat them differently? Already looking forward to the next post on this topic.

scott davis July 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Andy, I’d add one complexity inducer to your list: niche-phobia. Everyone wants a big market, so the tendency is to mingle un-like features (sometimes, even contradictory features) as if they were analogs. In other words, we cram multiple products into the same package so that we can pretend we have a big addressable market. A relatively reliable predictor of elegant simplicity in the product is the precision with which the target customer, need, and use-case has been articulated by the venture.

BillOdell July 27, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Great post Andrew. As a Silicon Valley vet of 20 years I can attest to the Bells and Whistles mentality that persists despite the well known fact that most customers use 20% of the functionality of our products at best. I think there is a bit of “keeping up with the Jone's” psychology at work here as companies feel they must keep pace with competitors Bells and Whistles for fear of losing prospects who will do check-the-box feature comparisons even though they might never care about the boxes they check.

I was fortunate to work of a company, Latitude Communications (now part of Cisco) who hired seniors to come in and test our UI. We figured if a senior citizen could not use the product, we had to keep simplifying it. I also will say I often remark about the success of 37 Signals – whose approach was get the product out with minimum features and let the market tell you what they want. Great approach and they got large without alot of VC funding either – something to think about….

barbaralewis July 27, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Many tech companies suffer from “smart person syndrome,” which can get in the way of creating better products for a greater number of people. “Smart person syndrome” hurts you in 2 ways: you think that everyone is as smart as you, so you build products that only you can use. (Even though Google is often appropriately lauded for making the complex simple, some of their enterprise offerings have suffered from this aspect of smart person syndrome.) Secondly, you think that people who are not as smart as you are not worthwhile to sell to, hence the Xerox copier story that you mention in the blog. Both aspects of smart person syndrome can kill your ability to generate significant revenues and are, in the end, not very smart at all.

A WebOnyx Creation July 28, 2009 at 6:34 am

Good article, I have often thought of the history of software in stages. The first software programs were not very feature rich because of hardware limitations, and the interface was hard to understand because our concepts of UX design were new. When hardware became less of a limitation features skyrocketed and that is what sales people sold to their clients “we have more features then our competitor”. Then the Internet came along and again there was another race, but this race was plagued by lack of standards, different browsers, iffy broadband, and bad business plans. Which leaves us today in a world of SaaS applications that are still limited by the fact that they have to be streamed over the net. But this is a good limitation because it makes the development team focus on the 20% of features that people actually need in the product that they are developing. Not to mention analytics that allow us to see how a program is being used and spot the pain points in the process quicker.

Phil July 29, 2009 at 5:36 am

Explaining the ease of use construct in magnificent narrative. Great!

Aaron July 30, 2009 at 8:25 am

I must comment on “unitasking” – I conform to the scientific studies stating there is no possible way for the human brain to “multitask”, shown through MRI's while individuals perform more than one task. The brain focuses on one task at a time, so the result almost invariably is lower performance levels for all attempted tasks. Think of driving and texting, or mistakes made when someone is “too busy”. So there is really no distinction between “multi-” and “uni-” tasking…there is only tasking. That to me seems to lead to the reason for Mr. Weber's enjoyment of Kindle – lowering distractions allows his brain to focus on one thing, rather than constantly shifting from one task to another (viewing other articles, ads, etc.), so he is more relaxed.

Gloria Fox August 3, 2009 at 12:27 pm

It seems that our human brain has no speed limit for learning, stimulation is exciting and learning new things or complex things is thrilling. That being said our emotions at times have us hang back and either savor the moment or slow down so that we can feel balanced and in control. It's like when you're learning to ride a horse and your instructor is shouting, “heels down”, “hands still”, “knees in”, “head up”, “give him more knee”, “watch where you're going!”…….you're up on the horse hanging on for dear life and trying to listen to all this new information! You cannot wait until the horse stops and then you want to go at it again. We are a paradox.

michaelling August 10, 2009 at 5:37 am

Simple is beautiful – i guess that's the overarching theme running through your article. Let me tell you how delighted I am as I read through it as I'm thinking about the same thing. I have worked in the software industry for some years and I was just baffled by the bells and whistles that the product management guys added to the products. The functional specifications went thicker and thicker with each upgrade or major release. Before getting into software, I worked in management consulting which provided me with the opportunity working with business decision makers in different industries – in what I call the 'real world', as opposed to the technie business.

In a competitive environment, business talk about agility and speed. This management style is obvious in China, Hongkong and Singapore. More information is not necessary a plus as it drags the decision making process longer and make it complicated. As a result, you will find the best selling software applications are the relatively inexpensive one with limited functionality and features. It is not only the price that makes them popular, it is also the case that they are simple, easy to use, easy to integrate that make them more attractive than the top-of-the-range products.

assistedlivingfacilities August 11, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Great article.

daitog August 13, 2009 at 7:51 am

Maybe we like the power/prestige of choice but then get nervous about ACTUALLY making a choice. Having choice makes us important, making choices makes us accountable.

Choice and technology remind me of a comment by an ex-boss – 'the problem with tehcies is that they can't communicate with their own species' – a wise man!!!

max191 October 1, 2009 at 7:47 am

Your blog is timely reinforcement about the purpose of blogs and what I aspire to as well. Really good one!
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Csmahant November 12, 2010 at 3:35 am

Its really about the benefits of clearing the clutter by simplifying and about the power of simplicity/ fewer choices. Good one indeed. Another similar message is here on this link, readers might like to check this out.

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