Embracing Simplicity

I’d come across the work of Professor John Maeda previously and his book “The Laws Of Simplicity” makes worthwhile reading for those interested in reducing the “clutter” that now exists in all our lives. I’m particularly interested in using his ideas to simplify the way in which we interact with technology (and software in particular).

It was therefore a pleasant coincidence to open Metro this week find a piece entitled “Just Keep It Simple Stupid” which references his work in the context of a more general discussion on the “less is more” trend in technology development. The coincidence was that only 20 minutes previously I had been presenting [email protected] to a client who was particularly interested in our solution because of the simplicity and aesthetics of our user front end.

I’m passionate (some might say to the point of neurosis!) about avoiding clutter and keeping my inbox empty and like most of us I fight a daily and ultimately futile battle to avoid information overload.

Because of the nature of our business, the interface we develop in [email protected] and [email protected] affects the working patterns of thousands of end users and consequently our development efforts focus heavily on the end user experience. Our products, by their nature, perform complex business tasks and it’s admittedly very difficult to reduce that functionality down to a few simple buttons. That does not mean however that we can’t make the solution easy to use and one of the significant design decisions made in the product was to separate the user front end from the administration module. This has enabled us to develop a browser based front end which is minimalist in design, very pleasing on the eye and highly productive.

The result today is an end user experience for [email protected] and [email protected] which is unique and when we talk to new clients they are often amazed that we don’t run any training courses for end users.

With these thoughts in mind I look forward to reading Mark Hurst’s new book, Bit Literacy. The premise of Hurst’s writings is that in an age of infinite bits, time and attention are the scarce resources. In our industry the related challenge is to develop software which is intuitive, fast and focused and which ultimately involves users spending less time working with our products rather than more. It’s easy to add a button, much harder to save a minute.

As we continue the development of Version 3 of [email protected] and [email protected] we constantly have to ask the question, “will every new button and function we add enhance or detract from a users productivity?” Packaged vs. Bespoke software is an argument whose path is well trodden. Suffice to say my hat is firmly in the packaged camp. As our user base grows and each new client brings their own unique wish list, we have to balance continuous flows of new enhancement requests with our passion for maintaining an uncluttered and intuitive solution.

Sometimes it involves challenging clients to think differently and to adapt business practices to suit new technologies and best practices. After all, why invest in new systems if all they do is automate old ways. It’s often said that when an organisation has to change its practices to accommodate new software, that the software must be at fault or inflexible. I don’t agree. Sometimes organisations should change!