The Simplicity Thesis | Fast Company

The Simplicity Thesis

BY Expert Blogger Aaron Levie | 05-02-2012 | 8:45 AM

This blog is written by a member of our expert blogging community and expresses that expert’s views alone.
The only companies or products that will succeed now are the ones offering the lowest possible level of complexity for the maximum amount of value.

A fascinating trend is consuming Silicon Valley and beginning to eat away at rest of the world: the radical simplification of everything.

Want to spot the next great technology or business opportunity? Just look for any market that lacks a minimally complex solution to a sufficiently large problem.

Take book publishing, for instance. Or website hosting. Jeff Bezos put these and other industries on notice in his annual shareholder letter, which included a self-service rallying cry against gatekeepers that perpetuate complexity and block innovation. After all, what could be simpler than provisioning servers in seconds with just a credit card and an API? But this call extends beyond Amazon’s empire to all ecosystems and products.

Any market where unnecessary middlemen stand between customers and their successful use of a solution is about to be disrupted. Any service putting the burden on end users to string together multiple applications to produce the final working solution should consider its days numbered. Any product with an interface that slows people down is ripe for extinction. And any category where a disproportionate number of customers are subsidizing their vendor’s inefficiency is on the verge of revolution.

Ultimately, any market that doesn’t have a leader in simplicity soon will. And if your company doesn’t play that role, another will lead the charge.

If you’re not the simplest solution, you’re the target of one.

In the ’90s and into the 2000s, an early wave of Internet services focused on simplicity through disintermediation: Amazon for shopping, eBay for selling, Google for searching. But these nascent players were limited in their approach. Sure, self-serve Internet services inevitably required some level of simplicity, but everything was just so damn new that experience didn’t meaningfully help companies differentiate. At least at first. But then companies like Yahoo and Microsoft grew into monstrosities, producing bloated technology empires.

If you’re making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption.

Today, things are different. Putting up a website is no longer novel. A clunky consumer device simply won’t be adopted when alternatives from Apple exist. And as more and more of the hard work of building infrastructure, managing computing, and installing and monetizing applications is abstracted from what necessarily goes into launching a company today, differentiation is going to come from solutions that create the best (read: simplest) experience.

This should be a red flag for any product or solution, whether digital or analog, that isn’t minimally complex. If you’re making the customer do any extra amount of work, no matter what industry you call home, you’re now a target for disruption. Because of the Internet’s scale and the speed of change in the world, the Innovator’s Dilemma has mutated over the years into a pernicious, methodically destructive force, leaving any company that is even the slightest bit more cumbersome, costly, or inefficient to be beat out by a newer, more streamlined competitor.

At Box, our enterprise customers are experiencing this revolution firsthand. Across organizations of every size, CIOs–generally not an aesthetics-driven group–are increasingly obsessed with implementing the simplest technology in their organizations. For years, enterprise solutions purchased for their feature checklists were later forgotten about post-deployment, underutilized, or frankly intolerable for end users. With tens of billions of dollars spent every year across infrastructure management, security, business intelligence, or analytics, it’s not surprising that a crop of simpler players are emerging, like OpsCode, Okta, Domo and GoodData, respectively. And they will inherently have a huge advantage over any of their more complex predecessors.

But while enterprise software is in dire need of a revolution, it represents just a fraction of what will be disrupted by radical simplification. Instagram’s billion-dollar acquisition and rise to 40 million users can mostly be attributed to the creation of the cleanest, most elegant, and simplest way to share photos on mobile devices. It could do this by focusing solely on nailing a brilliant experience on a single platform, while leveraging the scale and distribution offered by iPhones. SolveBio, a startup aimed at bio-scientists, is building a trivially simple solution that advances DNA and medical research, enabled by the infinite computing resources of Amazon. Spotify, arguably the fastest-growing music service today, reduced the friction of getting to unlimited music from any device down to nothing. By stepping back and questioning every assumption in music licensing and software, Spotify has built an unparalleled product and experience.

It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.

These are all examples of solutions that have hit, for today, the lowest possible level of complexity for the maximum amount of value. And that’s what makes them so disruptive to traditional players. But there are near infinite areas to attack. Particularly as problems get harder and more analog in their nature (coordinating loan applications, applying for colleges, dealing with health care providers, handling payroll) immense opportunities await the startup ecosystem.

So what do you do about it?

Whether you’re the incumbent or a startup, how do you build sufficiently simple solutions to complex problems? By abstracting as much of the work that’s actually going on from what’s required of the consumer, and maniacally slashing any process or barrier that prevents consumers from getting the best possible experience. It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.

Now, this isn’t an excuse for solutions to accomplish less. The irony of simplicity is that it invariably lets you do more. Simplicity isn’t about giving up any value–it’s a movement around designing technology or products thoughtfully to make them substantially more useful and attainable. Some of the simplest solutions on the market are equally the most advanced–Square beats out any other form of retail payment service; Nest offers the most compelling and powerful thermostat ever invented.

Here are just a few ways to get started in achieving minimum complexity:

  1. Think end to end.  Simplicity relates to the entire customer experience, from how you handle pricing to customer support.
  2. Say no.  Kill features and services that don’t get used, and optimize the ones that do.
  3. Specialize.  Focus on your core competency, and outsource the rest–simplicity comes more reliably when you have less on your plate.
  4. Focus on details.  Simple is hard because it’s so easy to compromise; hire the best designers you can find, and always reduce clicks, messages, prompts, and alerts.
  5. Audit constantly.  Constantly ask yourself, can this be done any simpler? Audit your technology and application frequently.

The next thing to understand is that simplicity is a relative, moving target. The accelerating speed of innovation ensures that you’re never the simplest solution for long. Any delay in staying ahead of the curve can give way to a new disruptor that brings new efficiencies or creates new elegance because of an enabling technology or social change. Original category simplifiers like PayPal and Intuit have fallen prey to more nimble and disruptive competitors that have taken advantage of their current complexity and weaknesses.

Companies that will win in the long term are those that can continue to simplify experience while simultaneously tackling harder and harder problems. Sure, it’s novel and powerful that Square can accept payments for a 10-person retail store, but when they start to do it for Gap, the game is radically changed. Amazon succeeds by continuing to charge into all areas of infrastructure delivery–consistently launching new tools and platforms that would otherwise cost developers an arm and a server closet, all with the same focus on abstraction and simplification.

When technology was inherently and unavoidably complex, it was forgivable that solutions weren’t elegant and simple. It was at one time understandable that finding and visiting a new doctor could take weeks, or searching for enterprise information wasn’t successful. But with a myriad of elegant and simple solutions entering the market, users are learning to expect far more from their products. Simplicity has become a virus that will either destroy you or catapult you to the front of the market.

–Author Aaron Levie is the CEO and cofounder of Box.

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