Feature Creep and the Laws of Simplicity.


“The people who design and sell products are not the ones who buy and use them, and what engineers and marketers think is important is not necessarily what’s best for consumers.”
– James Surowiecki on the Financial Page, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007

Through either coincidence or fate, I recently read The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda, and an essay in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki about “feature creep.” They both relate directly to what we do as digital brand communicators.

We go through this on a daily basis. Web sites and digital experiences usually need to accomplish many tasks, and we want to help them accomplish all these tasks. But sometimes too much is simply too much. Without a primary goal, all goals are equal. And if all goals are equal, none stands out above the rest, and the hierarchy disappears. When hierarchy disappears and someone is given the choice of picking between three, four, or ten navigational paths, the likelihood of them choosing what you hope they’ll choose is greatly reduced.

So how do you apply the idea of simplicity to a web site? How do you keep feature creep from creating an overwhelming experience? John Maeda Chip and Dan Heath (in Made to Stick) talk about the military idea of “Commander’s Intent,” or CI. In a military operation, the situation on the ground quickly changes, and officers and soldiers don’t have the luxury of having a commander at their beck and call to tell them what to do. So the CI directs them in their primary objective. Not the secondary objective or tertiary objective, but the single most important goal to be accomplished. Digital experiences need a CI as well. What is the primary intent of a web site, a kiosk display, or a widget that can be embedded in a site? Yes, there are other objectives to accomplish, but when it comes down to the essential brand objective, or we’ll call it the “Brand Intent” (BI), what would yours be? What is the one thing you want people to feel and remember about your brand when they visit your digital experience?

On an e-commerce project, our BI isn’t “sell more products” but “create a stronger relationship between the brand and consumers.” Selling more products is derivative of the stronger relationship; a stronger brand relationship creates the affinity between the company and the person, resulting in more product purchases. And that is essentially the difference between a web design agency and a digital brand agency. A web design agency will build you a web site based on your shopping list of goals. A digital brand agency will create a web site based on the kind of relationship you want to build with people, and how this works with the tasks you want to accomplish – not only the what you want to accomplish, but the why you need to accomplish it. It looks at what is critical, and what is superfluous.

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
– John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity (p. 89)

Subtract the obvious and the unnecessary, and add the meaningful… the digital brand experience. If a task, navigational link or content don’t support the Brand Intent, get rid of it. All site goals and objectives should stem from the Brand Intent, the brand experience, the primary reason for being. The site doesn’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) everything to everyone. It needs to be something meaningful to a specific group. Relevant conversations and content create this meaning, and it has become more and more cost-effective to involve specific audiences in specific conversations, and allow these audiences to involve themselves as little, or as much, as they like.

“Product returns in the U.S. cost a hundred billion dollars a year, and a recent study by Elke den Ouden, of Phillips Electronics, found that at least half of returned products have nothing wrong with them. Consumers just couldn’t figure out how to use them.”
– James Surowiecki on the Financial Page, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007

If those are the stats for product returns, imagine what this means to the digital experience you’re presenting. How much is a web site without a clear Brand Intent costing you?

UPDATE: I just realized that I think “Commander’s Intent” is actually in Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. Oops. Well, Made to Stick and Laws of Simplicity kind of have the same message, right? You should read both of them. That should cover me…
“The Laws of Simplicity,” by John Maeda (Powell’s / Amazon)
“Feature Presentation,” by James Surowiecki
“Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Powell’s / Amazon)

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