What The F*ck Is Simplicity? — On Designing Better Products And Companies

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following essay was originally published at https://www.younglingfeynman.com on November 27, 2020. If you enjoy this type of content, join the newsletter to get handwritten on papyrus essays that are worth their weight in gold shipped straight to your digital mailbox.

TLDR: Simplicity is still a controversial topic. Most argue that consumers desire simpler products. Some argue that they want simplicity but only if it is executed correctly (what that means is often left undefined). And a few believe that it’s actually complexity that makes consumers buy. This disagreement is rooted in the fact that no one seems to agree on what simplicity means. I suggest avoiding using it in any professional capacity, in favor of a more precise tool kit. What motivates the buying decision are the 3 components of the Fogg Behavior Model: motivation, ability, and prompt. Motivation, in order to make the sale, can be further broken down into the Job To Be Done (why is the consumer hiring the product?) and acute satisfaction (how badly do they want it in that moment?). Ability, making a behavior easier or harder to do, can be subdivided into time, money, physical effort, mental effort, repetition, social deviance, location in space, and location in time. Getting comfortable with these concepts will give you a productive framework to work with when deciding what features to include/exclude, and help you create products people actually want to buy, use, and recommend.

WHAT CHANGES BEHAVIOR?

One of the most fundamental theorems to have come out of behavior science is that shine changes behavior.

What’s shine? Shine is the emotion you feel when you feel successful. When you aced that job interview, got your first customer, or finally won that match in your game or sport. [1] By making behavior easy to do, you increase the probability that you’ll succeed instead of fail. When you succeed, you feel successful which reinforces the connection in your brain between that behavior and that positive feeling, and that leads to behavior change.

Simplicity → Shine → Behavior Change.

THUS BY TRANSITIVITY, WE GET SIMPLICITY CHANGES BEHAVIOR

Because simplicity means so many different things to so many different people, a more precise way to think about it is in terms of ability. High ability means a behavior is easy to do. Low ability means it’s hard to do. So when you’re thinking about consumer behavior change, think about increasing ability, making it easy to do.

For the purpose of this essay, you can use consumer and user interchangeably.

Obvious right? Well, no. The problem with fields like behavior science is tool bias. Which I described in Covid-19 And Human (Ir)Rationality — PART 1:

“This is a fascinating bias I call tool bias (if it has an official name, let me know), which ties the complexity of the tool to the perception of difficulty. Math can appear complex even when the application is very simple. Influencing behavior can appear simple even when the application is very complex. This phenomenon occurs in comedy as well. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to create a good set because the tools (language) are simple, so while you laugh you think, I could do this easily.”

I.e. behavior science suffers from hindsight bias because it’s so easy to understand. It all appears obvious ex post facto.

If something seems easy, we think “that must BE easy.”

But if you were to ask around as to what creates behavior change, you’d get many different answers (mainly around motivation) but making things easy to do wouldn’t be one of them. [2]

COMPLEXITY AS A HEURISTIC FOR VALUE

Okay, if simplicity or more precisely, increasing ability is so important (and obvious) then why are products so complicated?

Because it’s that very complexity that sells.

When we see something that’s complex, we think “that must have a lot of value.” If you’re a consultant giving simple answers to complex problems, it seems as though you’re not very smart or, at the very least, you aren’t taking it seriously. When you make it so complex that people can hardly follow along, it becomes hard for people to estimate the boundaries of your knowledge.

E.g. suppose you hire a consultant to help you with next year’s strategy. If they give you a thick stack of papers that supports their conclusion, you’ll perceive it more favorably than if they give you a single sheet with 2 paragraphs on it, sharing that same conclusion. Complexity acts as a heuristic for value. [3]

An obvious, but important nonetheless note, is that truth has to be measured by truth, not truthiness. Complexity impacts truthiness but it has no correlation with truth. I.e. just because something is complex doesn’t make it true. Just because something is simple doesn’t make it false. But that’s exactly the cognitive bias we have and partly explains our obsession with data-driven arguments. Read Your Data Is Lying To You And You’re Listening for more on that.

COMPLEXITY IN PRODUCTS TO IMPROVE SALES

Is this only true in information? No. You see the same phenomenon from consumer products to enterprise software.

According to Thompson, Hamilton, and Rust (2005), increasing the complexity of a product can have a positive effect on consumer satisfaction because of an increase in perceived capability.

Look at the following products:

Stripey toothpaste: Why do they go to so much trouble to make sure stripey toothpaste comes out of the tube, well… stripey? An overly logical engineer would see that and claim that you should just mix the products. It would have the exact same effect on oral hygiene and you’d actually save on cost. But that’s only correct if your customers were logical robots. But they’re emotional humans. Consumers simply don’t believe your toothpaste has 3 functions if they don’t see it. ‘’Healthy gums. Strong teeth. Fresh breath.” Show me, don’t tell me.

Dishwashing tablet: Same argument. Just blend all the ingredients into one homogenous tablet. But again, I, the consumer, wouldn’t believe you.

Toilet rim block: Look at how these simple blocks have grown in complexity. Multiple liquids in a container, different colored solid spheres, sticky discs you shoot onto your bowl, etc. [4]

Coffee machine: The most expensive ones have the most gizmos. More features to increase perceived capability, which is exactly what I, the consumer, want. Take Dolce Gusto machines for example. A manual lever to flip to make coffee? What am I, a 17th-century peasant?! I’ll take the model with the fancy LCD touch screen so I can feel like Louis the 14th thank you very much.

Cars: Steering wheels with roughly similar complexity as NASA’s mission control. Mirrors that can be moved electronically, are heated, dim based on light intensity, and more. Just take a look at the incredible feature set of these 2021headlights:

iOS: Remember that the original “iPhone OS” didn’t even have an Appstore yet? Just the 15 apps that shipped with the phone. Now you got an app for everything, cameras that rival mirrorless cameras and DSLRs in the right conditions, and more power than many laptops.

GOT IT! JUST ADD MORE FEATURES

It seems that if we want to sell more, we should simply add features.

Well, yes. But also… well, no.

There are many UX experts that advocate precisely this. “Simplicity is overrated and consumers, ceteris paribus, want more features because they want the most powerful products.”

This is partly true. Would you pay more for a phone that does less? It has a basic camera, or perhaps no camera, it has less memory, it’s not fast, it’s missing features (even if you don’t use them). Probably not. While one can imagine an audience of minimalists for that, one can’t imagine that they’d pay more for it than the flagship phone which sets the anchor for that particular price hierarchy.

But if that’s the whole story, that raises the question, why do products ever get disrupted? Surely, if features sell then Yahoo wouldn’t have gotten disrupted by Google. Or Netflix by Blockbuster. Or Facebook by Myspace. Or any other startup, since pretty much all of them started very simple.

The erroneous assumption here is that simple means getting rid of features. But a car that’s missing two wheels, the engine, and the body, that’s not simplicity. That’s not even a car. A bagless vacuum cleaner → a cordless bagless vacuum cleaner → the Dysons we have now with all kinds of attachments, different vacuum heads, and automatically adjusting suction levels… now you’ve got my attention. The “simple” Dysons still had high usability despite lower capability. So it’s not just about removing features, it’s about being diligent about which features you do add. And your customers are the arbiter that decide whether or not you got it right.

On top of that, Rust, Thompson, and Hamilton (2006) demonstrated that an increase in features (even the right features) doesn’t automatically translate into more consumer satisfaction. In fact, as perceived capability increases, perceived usability decreases. This is known as feature fatigue. (Thompson, Hamilton & Rust, 2005; See also Kemenade, 2018).

THEN WHAT DOES MAKE PEOPLE BUY?

So if we can’t simply add or remove features, how should we think about getting consumers to buy?

The user needs to want it (motivation), they need to be able to buy it (have the ability), and be provoked into buying it (prompt). (Fogg, 2009). Ability usually isn’t the most constraining factor. If a consumer really wants to buy something, they’ll take care of any cognitive dissonance for you. E.g. “I don’t have the space for this new guitar. But damn, I really want it. Okay, I’ll just clean up the attic, and then I’ll have enough space.” (Which they won’t do). Not carrying (enough) money is also not really an issue anymore with Apple Pay and the like.

You could imagine a physical constraint. E.g. they wanna buy but the product is too big to take home in their car. That’s a place where you could offer some delivery service to solve for ability. E.g. Ikea or AptDeco. Or your site only accepts credit cards, which are never used in The Netherlands. In which case the user probably wouldn’t buy because it’s too much of a hassle.

Prompts aren’t perfect in 2020 but rarely do products fail because they were so amazing yet the company simply forgot to tell people about it. And pretty much the only thing marketers actually understand is CTA: Call To Action, which is just another word for prompt. So buying is primarily a motivation issue. And secondarily an ability issue.

INFLUENCING CONSUMER BUYING MOTIVATION

The following two concepts are the main levers in getting a consumer to buy your product.

JTBD: The Job To Be Done. Just like an employer hires an employee for a certain job, a consumer hires a product to accomplish certain tasks. (Christensen, Anthony, Berstell & Nitterhouse, 2007)

Acute Satisfaction: How much pleasure is the consumer getting from your cool features in that very moment.

To come back to the aforementioned question, the reason why startups disrupt bigger companies is that they’re better at delivering the JTBD. Netflix wasn’t a shitty Blockbuster, it solved the annoying issue of late fees, going to stores, and having to go back.

Their 1st business model was letting you pick a movie online, then delivering the DVD to you by mail.

Google wasn’t a shitty Yahoo, it solved the annoying issue of being stuck on a messy homepage.

No one believed there was any money in search so instead, the name of the game was to keep users on the homepage as long as possible and then monetize that.

Think about the jobs a consumer has and what products they can hire to solve that problem. Why would they hire yours? Why does your product solve those jobs better? Which features do you need to add, improve or get rid of to do that? When a product doesn’t deliver on the JTBD, it’s gonna be a tough sell. But the more subtle takeaway is that acute satisfaction is distinct from long term satisfaction. This means that while you can seduce a consumer with gratuitous features because they’re in the “bang for buck” mindset, as soon as acute satisfaction wears off and reality sets in, the decreased usability will hinder consumer satisfaction, damage brand perception, and prevent future purchases. [5]

REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE PLAYING A SUPERGAME

It’s important to keep in mind that, from a Game Theory perspective, you’re not playing a one and done game (single stage game), you’re playing a repeating game over a long period of time (called a supergame). When you optimize each individual event, you’ll maximize the short-term at the expense of the long-term. This is very common in public companies that are forced to optimize quarterlies. And as Mark Ritson has pointed out in bothism, is one of the reasons their marketing is shit. It’s hard to create good marketing when you can’t do anything that doesn’t pay off within 36 hours and 17 minutes.

“At some point in the new century we stopped reading marketing textbooks and started beating the shit out of each other on social media over our contrasting professional perspectives.

You’ll note in this instance, and in most others, both perspectives might be in direct opposition to each other but still make equally valid points.”

You have to think about long term consumer satisfaction just as much as getting the sale. And as much as people like to deny it, brand is as much a part of a great product as engineering is. My favorite is when people on Twitter or YouTube complain about “Apple sheep”, without ever raising the question “why does my favorite brand suck so much that no one wants to associate themselves with it?” It’s almost as if they think that dedicated fans are a gift bestowed upon that brand by Zeus, and it’s unfair that their favorite brand didn’t get blessed instead. The thought that it’s the result of conscientious but psychological instead of technical work, seems to escape them. Superior engineering feels fair, superior branding does not.

In order to do a good job at brand, you have to think through the entire user experience. From the first time they come into contact with your product, to the purchase, to when they’ve been using it for a year, to telling their friends, and to their next purchase.

As the father of modern branding theory Marty Neumeier says:

“Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

And if they say it’s shit, they’ll never buy again. And neither will their friends.

I recommend reading the section on ergodicity in How Our Physics Envy Results In False Confidence In Our Organizations. In it, we talk about making sense of systems by averaging over a large number of events done once vs. one person repeating an event a large number of times and then averaging that. Most people don’t distinguish between those, and if you’re lucky, it doesn’t matter. But when it does (that system is non-ergodic), you’re hosed. So it’s important to make the right assumptions when analyzing a system, otherwise, you’ll be rigorous but wrong. E.g. Single stage games. vs. supergames.

THE 6 COMPONENTS OF ABILITY

JTBD and acute satisfaction help us influence buying motivation. But how can we influence ability? In “A behavior model for persuasive design”, BJ Fogg (2009) gives us 6 components of ability. These can be used to lower the need for high motivation when you’re selling the product but I think they’re most useful when you’re still creating the product.

Time: Time and ability are correlated. As something requires more time, it becomes harder to do/use. So you can make things easier by decreasing the amount of time required. E.g. Amazon 1-Click Ordering.

Money: It’s easier to buy things that don’t cost a lot than the opposite. It’s worth pointing out that people trade time and money. If a (young) person has little money but lots of time, they’ll prefer cheap/free things. If a(n) (old) person has little time but lots of money, they’ll prefer expensive things if that means saving time. This means, for example, you might be able to charge significantly for an out-of-this-world customer service department if you have a userbase that values time more than money. Think about price architecture and other pricing strategies. E.g. $10 a month vs. a one time payment of $170. [6]

Physical Effort: How much physical effort is required with your product? Things that require a lot of physical effort are perceived as harder to do. Going grocery shopping and preparing a meal requires a lot of physical effort. Getting food with Blue Apron or Uber Eats requires much less physical effort.

Brain Cycles (Mental Effort): If something is cognitively taxing, it’ll be perceived as harder to do. This is where Kahneman’s work on system 1 (automatic and fast) and system 2 (slow and deliberate) thinking comes in handy. This is one of the biggest contributors of annoyance post-purchase. Is your product so easy to figure out, it doesn’t need a manual?

Social Deviance: The degree to which a solution breaks the rules of a certain culture. A lot of great software isn’t used because all professionals in a certain industry use X. So in order to appear serious, you’ll have to use X too. [7] One of the reasons Zoom adoption was so slow pre-pandemic is because of social deviance. If you’re competing for business with multiple firms, all of whom get on a flight to see the client, and you’re doing it over Zoom, you’re not getting the client.

Non-Routine (Repetition): The more people do something, the easier it becomes. If a behavior is new it tends to be perceived as harder. This is one of the reasons for things like loss leaders in the retail world and cheap lead magnets in online. It’s easier to get someone to go from paying a little to paying a lot than it is from paying nothing to paying a lot.

The following two aren’t in BJ’s paper but I’ve found them to be useful empirically:

Location in space (Environment): Things can be harder or easier to do in certain locations. I look my best on holidays. I don’t wanna eat too much, I make sure I lift daily, and my NEAT is higher (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, i.e. energy expenditure that isn’t exercise) since I’m sightseeing, swimming, and so on. The reason is because I spend a lot of time with my shirt off and because of social pressure I wanna look my best. Contrast that to winters at home where there’s no social pressure, my motivation plummets, and I have to use ability levers such as physical effort and repetition. But you don’t have to make a big change to the environment. Small changes to an environment can have a disproportionate impact. One of the reasons you see so many different flavored chips in retail is because that maximizes shelf space and increases the probability that you’ll buy a bag of their brand. The job of Rice Fusion Peking Duck with Hoisin Sauce chips isn’t to sell, it’s merely advertising for the original and paprika chips. Also, a lot of choice architecture work is simply about making subtle changes to the environment. Thorndike, Sonnenberg, Riis, Barraclough, and Levy (2012) got hospital staff and visitors to make healthier choices simply by changing how drinks were arranged in the room. By making water easily available at all drink stations soda sales at the hospital dropped by 11.4 percent and bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent.

Location in time (Time of Day): You can make things harder or easier to do by moving them through time. So if you want to get your users to adopt a new behavior, at what moment of their day does it fit in best in their life? Generally mornings tend to work best. And although ego-depletion is on shaky legs right now, it does seem like people’s motivation levels are higher in the morning than evening. (Friese, Loschelder, Gieseler, Frankenbach & Inzlicht, 2019)

ABILITY PROFILES

Different people have more or less of these resources in different contexts. Some people have a high tolerance for social deviance when it comes to new technologies. These are the people Airbnb targeted when they were first getting started and sleeping in a stranger’s home was considered sketchy as hell.

Supportive HN commentary

Read: The Dumbest Startup That Ever Worked — What You Can Learn From Airbnb

Some people have a lot of time they’re willing to spend on something. Others don’t want to think too much. All of this depends on the person and the situation they find themselves in. You can use these ability components to sketch out a quick ability profile of your users. Treat this more like a business model canvas than computing a derivative. It’s not supposed to be rigorous and quantifiable, it’s intended to give you a rough idea of the ability profile of your users. Ability is constrained by the scarcest of these components. So if their scarcest component is time, then when prompted they may not engage in the desired behavior. Even if the other components are high. So in that case you’d wanna start by addressing the time component first.

When you’re thinking about how to make something easier to do, think about which one(s) of these components are holding them back the most and tackle them in order. Hopefully, with your new found understanding of motivation, JTBD, acute satisfaction, and the components of ability, you have the tools you need to create the right kinds of products and solve the problems that arise.

Good luck.

NOTES

[1] Back when I first started my tricking career, about 13 years ago, double corks (a backflip of one leg with 2 and a half rotations) were tricks reserved for the gods. Only a handful of people on the entire planet were able to land it. I didn’t believe in myself enough to even attempt it but when people around me started training it, that influenced me. Eventually, my brother and tricking partner landed it. I started drilling it so much that my left hip was blue from all the crashes. One cold, rainy day, I went to the beach in a sweater (this was before trickers trained in gymnastics gyms). And after another session of constantly crashing, I looked at the footage that I recorded on an old crappy camera. To my surprise, I saw that I wasn’t crashing. I was actually landing on my feet but let myself fall because I had gotten so used to crashing. When I saw that, it struck me like a bolt of lightning that I had to plant my feet and actually LAND instead of dropping like a sack of potatoes. The next attempt was my obnoxiously clean, first landed double cork. That was a big moment of shine for me. But you can map that feeling of shine to much smaller accomplishments by practising. E.g. Just doing 1 push up a day. You want to try and take that shine you felt in your situation, think about your actual celebration in that moment, and map it onto the 1 push up. The same method holds for your users. How can you make them feel shine? Games give you easy wins in the first few levels. Facebook connects you to your friends when you’re new. TikTok gives you a boost in engagement when you’re new.

Unfortunately, I cut my celebration off of this vid because I was young and “too cool” to be happy landing hard tricks.

[2] That’s why motivational speaking is such a booming business. It virtually never results in behavior change but consumers think it will. And they like how it makes them feel in the moment.

I’ve always wondered why, if motivational speakers truly care, as they always pretend to do, are there no figures? Where’s the data on the percentage of people whose lives were changed successfully 6 weeks in? How about 6 months? 6 years? But nope, nothing. Not a single follow-up study. Obviously, because the results would not be flattering.

Secondly, where are all the psychology Ph.D.’s? If you’re making millions with motivational speaking and your goal is to help people change their behavior to live a better life, wouldn’t you hire the smartest psychologists in the world to figure out what does and doesn’t work? It’s clear that behavior change isn’t their goal. Entertainment is. Motivational speakers are more like pop stars than they are psychologists. They pretend to be about helping people while in reality, it’s all about selling products. And you do that by entertaining people, making them feel good, and promising the world.

[3] You can’t sell a tweet for the price of a book. You can’t sell a book for the price of a course. You can’t sell a course for the price of a consultation. Irrespective of the knowledge contained, you’re constrained by the vehicle that knowledge is delivered in. Unfortunately, that accidentally incentivizes bloat.

[4] In branding, there’s something called brand codes. Brand codes means: “Would they recognize you at a glance?” The distinguishing features that a prospect immediately associates with your product or company. Think of McDonald’s golden arches. Mars bar’s black packaging with the red typography. The apple with a bite out of it. The swoosh. The silver and blue checkered pattern of Red Bull. The light-medium robin egg blue color of Tiffany & Co’s boxes, and so on. When searching for a photo for a toilet rim block, it occurred to me that no brand has proper brand codes. They are all 100% indistinguishable from each other. I realized this when it occurred to me that I didn’t know a single brand name. If a company hired Y&F for branding advice, it would be to go to the stores, take pictures of all the toilet rim blocks in the shelves, buy one of each, and create a design that does the complete opposite such that it stands out like a sore thumb.

[5] Complexity is one of the reasons people complain about products but they miss the fact that it was that very complexity they now dislike, that made them buy the product in the first place, because of acute satisfaction. Reliability issues aside, many consumers would’ve bought the new Macbooks with the touch bar and butterfly keys, simply because they were new. It’s hard to resist acute satisfaction when you have your wallet in your hand. You feel like you’ll deal with the cons later or they probably won’t be so bad.

[6] There’s a Dutch startup that runs a TaaS, transportation as a service, and has disrupted the Dutch traditional bicycle industry. They rent you a bicycle (which practically every Dutch citizen has) for about $15 a month and come fix it if it’s broken within a day. A journalist bemoaned “Why would people pay for this when they can just buy a bike for $450? That’s much cheaper.” The brashness of journalists, always with zero skin in the game, makes me cringe. He completely missed the fact that for a lot of students, hell people, $450 for a bike is a lot of money. It’s important to design systems (like this pricing model) for the way real people behave, not for how you feel they should.

[7] In big companies, there’s also the issue that if you fail by being conventional, you’re merely unlucky. If you fail by being creative, you may not have a job anymore. This leads to suboptimal decision making because not looking bad is more important than succeeding. Two things, don’t run your own company like that and take that into consideration if you’re in the enterprise space. E.g. You might push downside protection more than the possibility of great gains.

REFERENCES

Thorndike, A. N., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. E. (2012). A 2-phase labeling and choice architecture intervention to improve healthy food and beverage choices. American journal of public health, 102(3), 527–533. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300391

Christensen, C., Anthony, S., Berstell, G., & Nitterhouse, D. (2007). Finding the right job for your product. MIT Sloan Management Review, 48(3), 38–47. Retrieved from https://www.wright.edu/sites/www.wright.edu/files/page/attachments/Finding-the-Right-Job-For-Your-Product.pdf

Fogg, B. (2008). BJ Fogg on Simplicity. Retrieved 4 November 2020, from https://vimeo.com/2094487

Fogg, B.J. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. Persuasive ‘09.

Friese, M., Loschelder, D., Gieseler, K., Frankenbach, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2019). Is Ego Depletion Real? An Analysis of Arguments. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 23(2), 107–131. doi: 10.1177/1088868318762183

van Kemenade, R. (2018) Improving maintenance-sensitive products using online product reviews: the effect of adding product features on consumer satisfaction through consumers’ perceptions of capability, usability and maintainability. Retrieved 26 November 2020, from https://research.tue.nl/nl/studentTheses/improving-maintenance-sensitive-products-using-online-product-rev

Rust, R.T., Thompson, D.V., & Hamilton, R.W. (2006). Defeating feature fatigue. Harvard business review, 84(2), 37–47

Thompson, D.V., Hamilton, R.W., Rust, R.T. (2005). Feature fatigue: When product capabilities become too much of a good thing. Journal of marketing research, 42(4), 431–442.

Originally published at https://www.younglingfeynman.com on November 27, 2020.

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