Home > IBM, technology > Simplicity


Without a doubt, I am a fan of Albert Einstein. Beyond his scientific genius, his logic based approach and his stylish hair, he had a way with words.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

If you take out the ‘violence’ bit, what is left is that reducing complexity to simplicity is…well, not so simple. As I look around the technology landscape, the obvious examples of this jump out, Apple is the poster child, but that is too easy. Let’s consider your customers:

  • What are you doing to simplify the lives (work or personal) of your customers?
  • Do you have a good grasp on what they want? Need? (There is a difference).

Do One Thing Really Well

An example most people can easily relate to is ‘storing stuff’. Here is the physical metaphor; As a traveler, I am looking forward to the day that when I open up my closet in my hotel room, there are my clothes for the day, exactly as they appear in my closet at home. I did not pack a suitcase, I did not drag a roller-thingy across 1000 yards from Terminal F to Terminal C at Chicago’s O’Hare.

The technology example is the storage and retrieval of my work files. Fair to say that a 8GB USB key would probably do the job, but that has become a pain. Why? Well, I work on a desktop, laptop and iPad – only 2 of 3 actually have a USB port. You could also say this is a problem of my own creation (yes, but hold that thought). A few companies have started to address this problem (Apple is, again, one). Many are doing this one thing really really well. Where companies get into trouble is trying to do too much – a place they will struggle to hide the complexity.

“Excellence is the sum of 100 or 1,000 of <these> little details.” Drew Houston, DropBox

Do you Hide Complexity?

Providing a great experience (user or otherwise) is really hard, there is no doubt. The secret sauce of your offering, whatever it is, it is what you need to do better than anyone and provide great value. In general, there are at least two parts of a great experience. The remembered experience, you know the part we love, brag about (Facebook share) and thoroughly enjoy; think 2 feet of fresh powder on the slopes. Then there are parts which enabled that great experience but are meant to be forgotten; think parking lot shuttle or the high-speed chairlift.

The technological version is that when I am actively using an application, buttons, and user interface are important. I want fewer mouse clicks (or none), I want simplicity, when possible, but control of my own experience, when I want it. How about the other bits, the hard things; integrated spell check, auto-save, notifications, etc.,… In theory, gone are the days that I need to worry about these things, right? But, it took a long time to hide this complexity and we all complained pretty loudly when our file was lost, or an important document went to press with a spelling error. I only remember those things, when they don’t work.

Positive experiences are as much about the stuff that is memorable, as the stuff that is not. If I remember the ski-lift it is because it was a long line, a cold ride or it broke.


The relationship among complexity, simplicity and transparency is an interesting dynamic. Is it important to know the mechanics of the ‘detachable’ part of the chair or the size of the counterweight, on the ski lift? How many of you have asked to see the elevator certification (which is in the management office)? Do your users really want to know the actual protocol used to read and write data to and from your Dropbox files locally and how they are synchronized to the network? (Maybe)

Within the organizations you are doing business with, some people will want all the details and some really do not care. What most people really do care about is the following:

  • You know the details,
  • You are willing to share them if asked; Transparency
  • For whatever you sell, it does what it says it does.

Finally, Is it Simple to Use, Simple to Understand and Simple to Explain?

I believe more people would prefer to think about the ride down in 2 feet of fresh powder, but that is just me.

(Image source)

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

stats for wordpress
  1. grahamrhill
    March 12, 2012 at 10:26 am

    Hi Mitch

    Another interesting post.

    As you point out, less is often more, particularly when it comes to over-complicated, over-complex and over-engineered service.

    Einstein also said that you should ‘make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler’. I wonder if you are in danger of over-simplifying things, just a tad.

    The majority of modern economies are driven by SERVICE rather than extraction or production. A service is different to products in a variety of ways, not least that it is created together with customers at the point of consumption. It takes two to tango in the world of service.

    If customers co-create a service at the point of consumption, their knowledge, skills and experience are at least as important as the service platform provided by the organisation. If the customer doesn’t know how to consume a service, have the skills to do so efficiently, or the experience to get the most out of the platform, the service will fail to deliver what it says on the tin. And as Bain & Co research suggests, service failure is sadly, the norm.

    Winning at service requires not only that you provide an appropriate platform to facilitate the service, but also that you help customers (and other delivery partners) to get the most out of the service at the point of consumption. It isn’t so much a case of ensuring that, ‘whatever you sell, it does what it says it does’, as much as ensuring it allows the customer to get whatever they EXPECT, (irrespective of the role the organisation or the customer plays in doing so). And setting those expectations appropriately is the organisation’s job as well. This is anything but simple.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Entrepreneur

  2. Mitch Lieberman
    March 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm


    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    I do like that Einstein quote as well, I may have even used it myself once or twice. I do not disagree that I might be over-simplifying the problem, but I am trying to make a point. The objective is to make things as simple as possible. Too many products, services and offers are overly complex – if we can at least make things just a bit simpler, then we have achieved something, no?

    If a customer has purchased a service and does not know how to use it, there are two possibilities. 1 – They should have not purchased it in the first place 2 – They believed it to be something different from what they purchased. I do like the idea of co-creation, but it does not always apply, does it? Some things are simple, and need to remain that way.


  3. grahamrhill
    March 12, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Hi Mitch

    Hmmm. An interesting comment too.

    I agree with you that service is often made more complex than it should be. Just look at the endless range of irrelevant choices in your typical fast food restaurant or cofee shop. Sometimes less really is more.

    But I am not so sure that I agree with you about the person purchasing a service.

    Vargo & Akaka define service as ‘the application of competences for the benefit of another’. From the customer’s perspective a service takes place during an interaction with an organisation, its staff, or even its products. It exists when one set of competencies are applied by the organisation for the benefit of the customer, are matched with a compatible set of competencies applied by the customer for the benefit of the organisation. The service is thus created and consumed one touchpoint at a time. So service is by implication, indeed must be… co-created.

    If a customer ‘purchased a service and does not know how to use it’ there are a number of different possibilities. Perhaps the customer didn’t have the competencies available to them to use it. Or perhaps the organisation didn’t. Or perhaps they were in some way mis-matched. Or perhaps something else got in the way of the co-creation of value.

    Only when you start to understand the interplay of one set of competecies being matched with a complementary set to co-create mutual value can you understand what service really is. And more importantly, what service can and should be.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Entrepreneur

  4. March 12, 2012 at 6:53 pm


    This morning I read an article that substantiated much of your thinking – Apple’s leading designer Jony Ive gave an interview that spoke to this very topic.

    “Our goal is to create simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Get it right and you become closer and more focused on the object.

    Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new — I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us — a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.”

    The full interview is here: http://www.businessinsider.com/apples-jony-ive-on-design-2012-3#ixzz1owwAclV0

    Another appropriate example is search. There is nothing simpler than Google’s search interface, and the answers it provides. It doesn’t require any training or learning curve. However, the current algorithm has taken 1,000 man years to develop – a prime example of “Hiding Complexity” to get to simplicity.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: