Keep It Simple

April 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Orange Bicycle

sim·plic·i·ty: [sim-plis-i-tee]

Freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts.

I was making my way to a work event the other evening (beautiful, sunny, warm – read: wandering), when I noticed what I thought looked like a row of dark grey bicycle racks at the intersection of 9th Avenue and 14th Street.  In a bit of a rush, I didn’t investigate further and promptly forgot about them.  Then, the next morning as I was making my way out to work, I noticed the same – a row of dark grey bicycle racks.  This time I had to make time to check them out.  I had seen the concept in Paris and knew its arrival in New York was imminent, but I was nonetheless surprised – bike sharing.  Beautiful.

Not currently being in possession of a bicycle, I got a little excited.  I went to information post at the end of the row to see how it works.  It turns out this is the Citi Bike program, operated by NYC Bike Share, with stations situated in a number of spots around the city (there is a handy map posted indicating where you can cycle within a mile radius of your station and where additional stations are located in that defined area).  All good.  Now for the payment options.  Credit cards?  Check.  Pricing?  Annual Memberships; 24-Hour Access Pass; Unlimited 30-minute trips – no additional charges.  Okay…  Later, thinking that I must have been in a rush and misread the instructions and pricing, I went to the site to clarify the situation.  However, there was no mistake – pay for a day or a week, and ride for 30 minutes at-a-time.  What if I want to ride for longer than 30 minutes?  Never mind that there is no hourly rate for rentals (really? how can that be?), the instructions regarding rental pricing options and overtime charges and troubleshooting were so convoluted, I left the site in frustration and mild despair.  Such a good idea, gone bad.

My first thought was: not simple.

In contrast, here is a simple (also brilliant) idea.  Take the steel shutters that roll down on commercial storefronts and supply stores in an area heavily-trafficked in the evening and turn them into an art exhibit.  That is exactly what the Art Production Fund has done with their project “After Hours 2: Murals on the Bowery.”  The works of 14 artists were selected, a Brooklyn-based media company was hired to create the murals from the artists’ images, and, to enhance the experience, “next to each mural will be a telephone number that viewers can call to hear the artist talking about the project.”  A good idea, that stayed good.

I have been there.  I get it.  You’re so invested in designing with you think is the perfect customer experience, an easy-to-use service/platform/product with all of the options you imagine the customer desires, and ideally one that allows you to make money, but you don’t.  You’re so close to it (whatever your “it” is) that you can’t see that you’ve made things overly complex, and as a result, have delivered the opposite of simple.

To achieve simplicity, you need practice one discipline above all of the rest: restraint.  It sounds easy.  It’s not.  We have a tendency to needlessly complicate our endeavors.  There is the the urge to add just one more thing that the customer just can’t live without – one more feature, one more button, one more note.  Think about the restraint required to keep the Google homepage what it is and always has been.

There is beauty in what’s simple.  But there’s a catch.  Beautifully simple things are deceptive: the perfectly architected e-commerce site; the wool coat tailored to fall just-so; the song you can’t get out of your head.  They are perfectly simple because so much hard work, artistry and discipline goes into making them that way.  There is a reason the reason that James J. Shapiro named his sewing pattern guide company Simplicity back in 1927.

Fast Company recently published 10 Creativity Tips from J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler.  In the retail guru’s words:

Simplicity is very difficult to achieve.  Try to ask someone to make really good roast chicken.”

We should be cooking.

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