Simplicity is hard to sell

People say they want simple things, but they don’t. Not always.

Donald Norman argues in Living with Complexity that people really want things that are easy to use, not things that are simple. They want things that are familiar, even if the familiar is complex.

People also want all the features they can handle. If you’re competing with a product that is overwhelmingly complex, then simplicity sells. Otherwise simplicity is perceived as weakness. The more features the better. People may enjoy using simpler products, but they buy complex ones.

It’s hard to remove even vestigial features. If people are in the habit of doing something that is no longer necessary (or never did add much value), you’ll have a lot of work to do to convince them that it’s OK to let go of it.

Related post:

Simple versus easy

14 thoughts on “Simplicity is hard to sell

  1. By the way, when I say people tend to buy complex products, I think that’s true even if no money changes hands. Someone may “buy” a piece of free software, for example, by installing it and investing time in learning to use it.

  2. I agree that most people seem to prefer complexity and variety in those products they care about, but there are significant niches that trend in the other direction. Apple is one example, its fans prefer trading functionality for simplicity, at least on mobile platforms. Another example is Bang & Olufsen which charge premium prices based mostly on their trademark minimalistic design.

    Remarkably, both occupy high-price niches: elite consumption as conspicuous lack of complexity, in an age where complex gadgets are commonplace.

  3. Chris: Good examples. I thought about mentioning Apple in the blog post, but Bang & Olufsen is another good example.

    Apple and Bang & Olufsen have great reputations, and their prices signal quality. Would people value the simplicity of their products without these signals? For example, if you placed a Bang & Olufsen stereo next to a stereo with more knobs, removed the branding, and made the prices equal, which would people choose?

    Apple can sell simplicity, but not everybody can. Over the years Apple has build a reputation that let’s them say implicitly “If you don’t see something you expect in one of our products, it’s because you don’t need it. We’ve reinvented the product. Trust us.” An unknown company doesn’t have that benefit of a doubt.

  4. Clean design (aka simplicity) is difficult to do right, and for physical objects, defects are all to easy to spot. The lovely ornamentation of 1900s cast-iron stoves actually served the purpose of disguising flaws in the casting. It’s a lot harder to make a flawless flat surface. In the early 1980’s there was a great cartoon where a calculator salesman rattled off all the functions of the device, ending with “…all of which more than makes up for the lack of a ‘9’ key”. So many apps today have that flavor.

  5. John: The curious thing about Bang & Olufsen is that their products are quite mediocre in terms of sound quality, based on the few samples I’ve listened to and on what I’ve heard from others. They don’t deliver exceptional quality in any respect but design. So in your example, people would likely choose the stereo with more knobs because it actually sounds better. :)

    That’s not quite the case with Apple but there is a parallel. For example, the best PDF reader/manager on iOS is GoodReader, it’s cheap and packed with functionality. But I’ve seen Apple aficionados violently reject that app simply on the basis that its UI is ugly, it’s not streamlined and Apple-like. They demand elegant simplicity in any product, whether made by Apple or not.

    So while I agree that a company needs to provide a consistent minimum level of functional quality in order to occupy a high-price niche based on beautiful design, I think the design itself is the primary cause for this niche success.

  6. Apple do not make simple products. They may look nice and have few buttons but they are by no means simple.

  7. Jim: Apple products are perceived to be simple, and that’s what people base purchasing decisions on. Whether these products are simple is another matter. I suppose the products are simple if they match your expectations and you are content with the decisions Apple has made for you, but that’s true of any vendor.

  8. This post caught my eye because a client is asking for a complex model with extra “knobs” where we usually try to self-tune those parameters out to give the “simplest” solution. It’s hard to guess when providing those knobs will be desirable versus when a single solution would be better received.

    Simplicity sells if you can convince people it’s cool. I really impressed a guy sitting next to me on an airplane recently by putting Terminal.app in fullscreen mode on my Macbook Air. Apparently, the fewer features a person uses, the smarter they must be.

  9. in, I think, yesterday’s N Y Times, there was an article about how all of academic psychology is based on western undergrads; as an example of the problem, the well known arrow head visual illusion doesn’t work on some non western people (1)

    One of B Russells philosophy professors remarked that all of progress is allowing people to forget.

    How much of what we buy is driven by ads, things that we wouldn’t do ifnot bombarded constantly by huge amounts of advertising

    1) quick example http://deskarati.com/2011/12/07/optical-illusion-reveals-reflexes-in-the-brain/

  10. When I look at the stuff I buy, I see two classes.
    Stuff I’m experienced with, and know that I will need to use (need interpreted liberally) I buy the simplest stuff I can find – I’ve learned the hard way, espically with electronics, it does not pay to be an early adopter if you need to get work done.

    On the other hand, with toys (toy interpreted liberally) i’m willing to be a guinea pig

    I also find that as I get older, just as I have less need to impress people with fancy clothes, I have a lot less need to impress people with my gadgets. I listen to the hot kids I work with (guys) talking about their cars, and new tablets, and stereos, and think, you need a wife to straighten you out and put some perspective in your life.

  11. Rich Hickey makes a very similar point, in the context of programming languages: “simple” is objective, and timeless, while “easy” is based on familiarity, and as such, its benefits drop off with time.

    Chris: I’ve only listened to one pair of B&O speakers (which were admittedly fairly expensive), and they sounded amazing. We should distinguish between parts of a music system that matter a lot (like speakers) and those which matter a little if at all (amplifier).

    Double-blind testing consistently shows significant differences in speakers, but, when levels are matched and extra signal processing is disabled, no difference among amplifiers with the same power rating. An amplifier with fewer controls, then, will sound just as good, as long as you don’t want any of the extra signal processing (people often like messing with the equalization to make it sound “brighter” or something). More controls simply give me another way to screw up the great sound quality that every amplifier has!

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