Complexity: The Curse of the Digital Age

We live in a world where change and complexity are forced upon us at every turn. The world is hitting back. People are yearning for simplicity. People are tired of technology that’s overcomplicated, poorly designed, and full of bugs.

A classic example is WAP phones. The ads promise ultimate freedom, but the reality is that these phones are excruciatingly difficult to use, and they deliver precious little benefit. The result is that consumers are becoming more conservative than ever in what they buy and how they use technology. The average person, for example, uses no more than 10 percent of the features in common software, such as Microsoft Word.

Buyers Are Cautious

A recent study by FCB Worldwide found that European buyers are becoming increasingly more cautious. “There is a massive amount of inertia,” according to an FCB director. “People have a lot of education about these products, but the more they know, the less they are tempted to buy something that will be upgraded next week.” The study also found that consumers are unhappy with ridiculously feature-laden products. Consumers are finding that with all these features, the products often don’t do the basic things that the consumers want them to do.

This is no accident. The technology industry is a speed addict. The only thing that matters for many companies is to beat the competition in getting a product to market — regardless of whether it works or not.

“Ship, then test” is the motto of the software industry, according to Silicon Valley guru Guy Kawasaki. He received a standing ovation from more than 1,000 entrepreneurs when he made the statement “Don’t worry, be crappy.”

Consumers Are Left Wanting

The consumer is not happy. A July study by PC World found that very few consumers are satisfied with the computers they buy. It found that approximately 22 percent of computers break down every year, compared to 9 percent of video recorders, 8 percent of refrigerators, and 7 percent of big-screen TVs. Another study, by the Gartner Group, found that 25 percent of laptops cause problems.

The information worker is not happy. A report by the META Group found that even though technology workers are working longer hours than ever, their productivity is diminishing. Projects have become more complex and because people are changing jobs more often, they are taking longer to acquire the appropriate skills and experience. “Hours worked were far longer, but productivity was far down,” according to Howard Rubin, a leading researcher on software labor patterns.

Complexity is the curse of the digital age. It is a type of intellectual pollution that smothers clear thought. True genius and great design are about turning something complex into a product that is simple to use and delivers a real benefit to the consumer.

If the technology industry does not stop its love affair with rapid change and complexity, it will alienate a whole marketplace of consumers. Never before has the KISS motto been more true: Keep it simple, stupid.

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