Simplify, Simplify!

“How do you fit a mountain into a teacup?”

Rob Haitani’s famous “Zen Riddles,” initially articulated as principles for the creation of the Palm Pilot, have become the guiding principles for today’s cult of design.  The most famous, the mountain in a teacup, is too often met with a “shrink the mountain” mentality, best exemplified at the time (and today) by the efforts of Microsoft and others who attempt to create the most robust, fully functional software on the market.

What you really have to think, says Haitani, is “why do you want to put a mountain in a teacup to begin with?”

Focus on the most important thing you [want] to do, and aggressively remove the rest. There [is] the answer to my riddle: “Dig for the diamond and put that in the teacup. Why would you want all the dirt and rocks?”

Haitani’s key insight is that developers must understand what the consumer really wants to accomplish and make it as simple as possible. In the process, they must strip away any frivolities which, while nice, ultimately rob the product of its elegant simplicity.

Why am I talking about ‘elegant simplicity’?

Because people love it.  And we (and our clients) are in the business of creating things people love.  Though over the years, the cult of Palm has become the cult of Apple, the guiding principle remains the same – trending towards simpler, more streamlined designs.

This has been the driving force behind Google’s Chrome, the Netbook explosion, Twitter, and innovative new CPG offerings like HelpINeedHelp and Haagen Dazs’ Five.

HelpINeedHelp's products are labled by their purpose. Why didn't anyone think of this before?

HelpINeedHelp's products are labeled by need. Why didn't anyone think of this before?

It’s the reason I get excited about deliciously simple web applications like Yarp.  Need to poll a group of friends or send an invite for an impromptu gathering?  Create a Yarplet in seconds – no login, no profiles, you don’t even need to input email addresses.  Just copy and paste the link, just like you share everything else.  Its simplicity makes it extremely usable and versatile.  Or you could spend 15 minutes wrestling with Evite.  Your call.

Yarp's simplicity makes it useful for impromptu gatherings (or Fooseball Challenges)

Yarp's simplicity makes it useful for impromptu gatherings (or Foosball Challenges)

Focus is key

‘Elegant simplicity’ doesn’t have to mean basic, but it does necessitate focus.  Flickr emerged as a leader in online photography despite being relatively late to the game.  By staying laser focused on its core offering, a social network for photographers, Flickr not only differentiated itself, but avoided watering down its value proposition to consumers.  It’s not photo hosting, picture printing, or video sharing.

Unfortunately, Flickr is owned by Yahoo (arguably the king of one-stop-shop thinking), so we’re starting to see these features slide into the service.  I’m not a fan, but at least they’ve kept the bloat marginalized and mostly out of view.  Still, at least one person agrees with me, Justin Oulette’s offers a stripped down, minimalist interface that lets you view photographs and their EXIF information.  I’ve allowed access to my meager gallery as well as some much better work from my coworkers.

Simplicity in the App Store

Being born for the mobile platform, Haitani’s insight is especially apt for app developers.  The mobile platform is exceedingly difficult to design for.  Developers must contend with limited real estate, limited controls and a consumer that has neither the time, attention or patience to delve into a complicated experience.

You’ve probably heard that the iTunes app store recently passed the one billion downloads mark.  To celebrate, Apple released a list of the top 40 (20 free + 20 paid) iPhone applications (as well as some sweet banner creative.)

Games aside, it strikes me that the many of the most popular apps embrace ‘elegant simplicity.’ They do one thing and do it really, really well.  Applications like Pandora, Shazam, UrbanSpoon, Movies, and Flashlight deliver a simple interface that gets the job done.  Even branded efforts like the Zippo Lighter and Weather Channel resist the urge to provide more than is necessary, keeping their offerings slim and functional.

Give the consumer exactly what they want, let them get it quickly and get out of the way.  Leave the dirt and rocks for someone else.

Flame on.

Flame on.