Though it may sound counterintuitive, simplicity is anything but simple. In fact, it requires a lot of hard work, and few companies have been able to deliver simplicity effectively.
For the past three years, my company has conducted its Global Brand Simplicity Index to find out which ones have. We ask over 6,000 consumers in seven countries to rank brands based on how simple their products, services, interactions, and communications are, related to their industry peers. The companies that come out on top are generally those with a strong focus, that have made firm decisions about what they want to be and what they want to offer.
Consumers were also asked to rank industries based on whether they made life simpler/more complex, the pain of interactions with companies within the industry, and how the industry's communications rank in terms of ease of understanding, transparency/honesty, concern for customers, innovation/freshness, and usefulness.
These industry rankings show some clear trends. For example, travel and insurance industries - where the consumer is faced with a bewildering array of options, with little viewpoint into pricing and process - rank consistently near the bottom of the list, while restaurants and electronics rate near the top.
One consistent feature of simpler experiences is a curated range of choices. For example, within the top five simplest brands, you'll see Google (No. 1) and Apple (No. 5). When you go to the Google home page, you are given one box to interact with. Apple offers you five laptop models, compared to over 50 from Dell. Each of these lists of options had to be curated from many possible items, and it's likely that there were good products that didn't make the list.
One interesting finding from the survey is that workers in industries rated as very complex by consumers, such as car rental, rated their own work experience as simpler. Workers in industries that consumers considered simple rated their work as very complex. This shows how tough it is to make simplicity happen on the back end, and how it requires strong discipline by organizations.
However, it's clear that for those companies that achieved simplicity, the work was worth it. A stock portfolio made from the publicly traded top 10 global simplest brands has beaten the average global stock index by 99 percent since 2009. In the survey, 60 percent of people said they would be willing to pay more for simpler experiences and interactions. And many of the simplest brands are held up as models to emulate by their peers.
How Did They Get There?
In a bit of luck, Google stumbled into simplicity. The story goes that Sergey Brin didn't know HTML when he first created the Google home page, so he didn't know how to add anything more to it.
Apple had a tougher road, ending up where it is largely as a result of a strong leader who consistently enforced simplicity. Under Steve Jobs, Apple products became more and more minimal, often through controversial choices, such as removing the disk drive.
On the other end, look at Facebook, which dropped to No. 72 in the Simplicity Index this year (from No. 44 last year). Facebook's most recent M.O. is to keep adding more and more items to users' screens, frustrating many of its users.
How Do You Get There?
It's not going to be easy, and you won't make everybody in your organization happy (at least not at first). Start with a clear vision and give one person the responsibility to make that vision happen. Complexity will try to creep in at the edges, with one little addition here, and another addition there. Keep your initial goal in mind, and remind everybody of it often.
You also need to be comfortable with the fact that not every customer will love you. I, myself, recently left the Apple fold to get an Android phone, because I wanted the customization and different features that it offers. But that's OK. There are still plenty of people who love the iPhone experience, and they are fiercely devoted to the platform.
Also, simplicity can't just happen on the communications side. You can't offer 100 different variations of a product and then expect someone to come up with a simple way to talk about them. Make the choices simpler, make the buying process simpler, and simpler communications will follow easily.
There's money to be made in pursuing simplicity, and the opportunities are there for companies that have the guts to do it.
Stones image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.
As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.
Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.
March 19, 2014