Strong opinions, weakly held

Marketing versus simplicity

I’ve been thinking about the conflict between marketing and developers for some time, and then yesterday, I read an article by Don Norman about the death of simplicity that goes right to my point. Here’s a snippet:

It appears that marketing won the day. And I suspect marketing was right. Would you pay more money for a washing machine with less controls? In the abstract, maybe. At the store? Probably not.

Notice the question: “pay more money for a washing machine with less controls.” An early reviewer of this paper flagged the sentence as an error: “Didn’t you mean ‘more money’?” the reviewer asked? That question makes my point precisely. If a company spent more money to design and build an appliance that worked so well, so automatically, that all it needed was an on-off switch, people would reject it. “This simple looking thing costs more?” They would complain. “What is that company thinking of? I’ll buy the cheaper one with all those extra features — after all, it’s better, right? And I save money.”

Marketing rules — as it should, for a company that ignores marketing is a company soon out of business. Marketing experts know that purchase decisions are influenced by feature lists, even if the buyers realize they will probably never use most of the features. Even if the features confuse more than they help.

The idea of listening to marketing is a painful one for me, as a product developer. There’s a painful disconnect between what makes the most sense to me and what motivates customers to buy a product.

One of the best examples of designing software that looks good in a brochure is bumping up the number of anything that can be counted. If your competitor’s software can produce 100 different reports and your product can only produce 10 different reports, marketing is going to ask for more reports. It doesn’t matter if your 10 reports are the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that they more coherently present the same information that the competitor’s 100 reports display. To marketing, you’re 90 reports behind in the reports race.

The thing is, as much as it offends me aesthetically, the marketing guy may be right. When a sales rep is trying to sell that product to a customer, that customer will ask where those other 90 reports are, and they will probably dismiss any claims that your 10 reports make those other 90 reports obsolete as hand waving.

I do think that design is the wild card here. If your product is achingly beautiful, then you can jump out of the feature rat race. That’s why the iPod and the Mini and the KitchenAid Mixer are winners. Building products that transcend checklists, enables you to ignore marketing. Good luck with that.


  1. I’m sorry I just had to:

    To marketing, you’re 90 reports behind in the reports race.

    Obligatory Strangelove Reference: Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!

    On topic: I have to agree with your well written analysis. It is more difficult and requires smarter customers to be able to sell better designed (as in simpler UI/less features etc.) products. One point though:

    If your product is achingly beautiful, then you can jump out of the feature rat race.

    I am not sure whether it was only the beauty that helped apple. My guess is that apple had already sold their general approach of “making things easy for people” in product design, that when apple gets a product out, people will automatically think of that when they encounter “missing” features (see the shuffle). Though it could be argued whether apple had enough mindshare back when the ipod started it’s success.

    For me personally Phillips is (or was, I haven’t bought anything in a long while) similar in that respect. The gadets that I had bought from them, were alway well designed and thought through so they could be operated easily. Once that message “stuck” I found I credited them automatically with that kind of benefit, without having to be sold that line for any new product.

    But then again, the market for watches would solidly back your point. I mean, everybody who proudly compares their Casio and it’s many features to a more expensive (and simpler!) Chronometer from a well known manufacturer, will not be taken seriously. 😉

  2. I totally missed the Phillips angle — was it on TV?

    In any case, what Don Norman has to say works maybe so long as you’re buying something for yourself. The moment you go out there and buy something for someone else, all the bells and whistles may prove a barrier to using the product.

    I’ve got more on our “Washing Machine” Caper here…

  3. It has been my experience that every single sale–every one–is based upon emotions of the buyer.

    Delighting the customer = sale. Pricing too high or too low decreases positive emotion (‘that must be junk, it’s so cheap!’ or ‘wow, that’s expensive!’). Being too simple or too complicated decreases positive emotion (‘it’s way too complicated for me to understand’ or ‘something that simple couldn’t do what I want it to do’).

    None of these are subjective.

    Joel on Software has a good article about features. He argues that you should never remove features, because even though 80% of people use 20% of the features, they all use a different 20%.

  4. One of the best negative examples of what you’re talking about is the cell phone. Mine must have 150 features, 15 of which I use, but I’m still longing for a cell phone experience that leaves me satisfied with the quality of the call.

    On the positive side, I recently bought a Senseo coffee maker from Phillips. Here’s something that only has a couple of buttons — one to heat the water, and one to start the coffee — and it’s a marvel of good design. On top of that, the coffee is great.

    Tivo is another example of great software and design. The cable companies have tried to emulate TiVo, with disastrous results. They tried to cram more into their devices, but can’t even produce a system that doesn’t drive you up the wall waiting for it to respond.

  5. Really high end audio equipment tends to be bereft of controls. But that stuff is priced to the point where few can buy it.

    Excess controls, like excess reports, have always driven me nuts. But, people seem to think they are getting “more”.

    I coded for the place that I worked at. I would initially produce those reports I knew were necessary, and try to hold off on the others until they were forgotten.

    Except for one turkey who irritated the hell out of me. I took product output and ran it against SAS macros producing some incredibly meaningless statistics and graphics. He went through the whole box and a half of output every month, and I know for certain that he had no idea of what a covariance was. But, it kept him busy and off everyone else’s back. That report provided a great productivity gain for the rest of the staff.

  6. I think the battle is not between simplicity and complexity but between ease of use and features.

    To take Rafe’s initial “washing machine”, I don’t want a washing machine with 5 nobs and 12 buttons. I just want a washing machine that will clean my clothes. Given one that looks complex and one that looks simple, I’ll be more likely to buy the simple one because, “How complex is a washing machine supposed to be”.

    Apple hit it out of the park with the same idea. How hard is it to use a Walkman or Discman? Not very hard at all. Why should an mp3 player be any different? The iPod not only has a great visual design, it is a breeze to use when you want to play music!

    It is ease of use that should be a priority, not a reduced feature set.

  7. Leo brings up a good point about the role of emotion in purchasing. I always try to be honest with myself about my own emotions. There is nothing wrong with admitting that I need, say, a $100 jacket, but that I bought a $200 jacket because I like the color pattern better. I spent an extra $100 on my emotions. It’s very freeing to just be up front about decisions like that.

    Getting back to the topic of simplicity, I’ve learned the hard way over many years that simpler is often better and more reliable. When I was younger, I used to just love all the multi-function this and that, all the bells and whistles. Now, when I buy a tool, or a piece of outdoor gear, or clothing (three-in-one jackets anyone?), or a car(!), I look for and value simplicity and focus.

    One problem with chasing simplicity though, is that many manufacturers lump “simple” and “cheap” together. It’s not so easy to find simple operation and good quality and pleasing design all in the same package.

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