January 27th, 2008
I was talking to a newsroom last week about adopting Publish2 as an editorial platform for creating news aggregation features for their website — there was a lot of excitement about sketching a big vision, thinking about all of the possibilities. But in a follow-up email, we held hands around a critical guiding principle — to get editors and reporters using a new system, it has to be DEAD SIMPLE. To quote the executive editor:
So seamless, so transparent, so idiot-proof that I can do it without training — and so that it doesn’t add more than a heartbeat to my day.
Indeed, one of the great barriers to the adoption of web technologies among journalists and newsrooms is the perception that they are hard — when in fact web technology keeps getting simpler and easier — and can make the work of editors and reporters more efficient rather than more difficult. Amy Gahran recently lamented that journalism schools still teach Dreamweaver instead of teaching simple content management systems like WordPress.
This got me thinking about how simplicity has become a key driver of technology adoption, especially in the last 10 years, as advanced technologies have developed simpler user interfaces.
The recent poster child for simplicity is Twitter — type 140 characters in a box, IM, or text message. It’s so simple, in fact, that many people didn’t understand at first how it could be useful. But Twitter’s simplicity has driven its viral adoption and made it easy for users to imagines dozens of other uses more valuable that the original proposition of “what are you doing?”
The archetypal example of simplicity driving technology adoption is Google search. Type what you’re looking for into a box and click “search.” What could be simpler? Especially when that’s the only thing on the page. Of course, the technology behind Google is extremely complex, but it’s completely transparent to users.
Apple has also benefited from its devotion to simplicity. I remember the first iPod being criticized for all the features it lacked — but it had just enough features to retain its simplicity and introduce digital music to millions of people.
YouTube made online video distribution dead simple — just paste the code. Suddenly, millions of MySpace and blog pages were streaming YouTube videos.
Blogging was a revolution of simplicity. That’s why I always get strange looks when I say that a blog is just a CMS — content management systems were onces ponderous, byzantine applications. But to blog, all you need to do is write a title, some content, and click publish. Voila, you’re a publisher.
Facebook (in its pre-Platform days) stood out for its clean, simple interface.
Email, web browsing, and instant messaging are all fundamentally simple technologies — despite the many UIs, both simple and complex, that have been brought to bear — they proved simple enough for nearly everyone to embrace the internet.
Developing elegantly simple applications is of course anything but a simple undertaking. It’s so easy to develop features these days that the temptation is to roll out new features simply because you can. But the real art is in figuring out which features drive significant value for users and making those exquisitely simple. The rest should be left off, pushed to the background, or placed off to the side for power users.
Life is already complicated enough — people want new technologies to make life easier, and simple but powerful applications do that best.
Some additional thoughts:
One key do making web applications dead simple is to have a deep understanding of your user base, how they work (or play), and how to tailor the intuitive elements of the app specifically to their needs. Many successful web apps have been one-size-fits-all, but I think increasingly we’re going to see specialization and customization in web technology, as the cost of creating customized apps for particular users continues to drop.
To that point, Amy Gahran highlights in her comment below how important it is to use the right technology for the task at hand. Many users are trying to adapt popular web applications to uses they weren’t really designed to support — simplicity is not only a function of intuitive design, but also tailoring the design so the application is the right tool for the job.