Quocirca's Straight Talking: Keep it simple, stupid

It applies to IT too...

It applies to IT too...

Giving users of technology just the features they need, without too much to overwhelm them or too little to hinder their productivity, is a challenge of the first degree. Quocirca's Rob Bamforth looks at Vodafone's latest attempt to address the need for simple mobile phones.

The speed at which many technology companies add new features into products has been dubbed by some as an arms race but what passes the suppliers by is that this might not be what their customers want or need.

'We don't do technology for technologies' sake' has become a familiar defensive mantra yet the amount of effort needed to effectively reduce is generally greater than that to produce - just ask any good editor. Designers, software developers, writers and photographers with technical skill can all create excellent material but the eye and brain required to pare down to the essentials and match these to the reader, viewer or user is a somewhat different skill set. It must be ruthless and precisely focused on the needs of the consumer of the material.

The problem for any technology-derived industry is as products or services become commodities there are only a few directions for suppliers to go.

The first option: drive volumes up as commodity prices tumble, though this leads to a consequent squeeze on margins, reduced customer loyalty and increased churn. This is often countered by a 'confuse the customer' marketing strategy which makes it harder for them to directly compare options from various suppliers. Take any utility supplier or the telecoms industry for examples of this behaviour.

The second option: just keep adding features, which may or may not be of value to the user, to justify the need to preserve the price at a consistent market pitch. This keeps margins at a reasonable level but over time the ability to add new features becomes the preserve of fewer and fewer companies, so the number of suppliers shrinks a potential monopoly or duopoly situation. There are many examples of this in the IT industry as success breeds success - look at Dell, Intel and Microsoft's positions in their respective markets.

The leap of faith to expect customers to pay a premium for excellent design is rarely taken but when it is the results can be staggering and success can come from what seems like nowhere. The sweet spot of excellent design is providing something that precisely fulfils a customer need and does not burden them with extra, unnecessary features. For examples look no further than Apple's iPod and RIM's BlackBerry.

The iPod is arguably not the cutest design and the proprietary approach to audio formats is a bone of contention for many but it delivers music in a simple way, with clear controls that can be understood without reference to a manual. The clean lines, no-nonsense approach to playing music and sticking with that task alone, combined with Apple's inherent cool aura, make it an object of desire.

The BlackBerry is a general purpose device that delivers email on the move and offers additional features such as voice calling and scheduling. According to our recent research those companies with BlackBerry deployments believe the device could become a universal mobile platform. But for most users the device doesn't function as their mobile phone - just their mobile email tool and it performs this task with simplistic ease. This has produced a strong mindshare for BlackBerry among corporate mobile email users.

Vodafone has taken a similar approach with its 'Simply' concept.

This is targeted at a market that Vodafone noticed has not been sufficiently listened to by the mobile industry - too old to be teens, too early to retire, 'inbetweenies' you might call them. I'm talking about the consumer segment Vodafone calls 'adult personal users': those who want easy to use technology and not gadgets packed with the latest features and a confusing myriad of functions.

Vodafone's offering is based initially around two phones with bold screens, useful buttons, simplified tariffs and a chunk of plastic that supports the phone upright while charging - think cordless phone. The number keys are accompanied by a separate keypad lock button, a ringer volume rocker and three dedicated function keys. The 'Home' key takes you to the top level menu; 'Contacts' brings up the address book; and 'Log' shows you all your messages. The Log key flashes when messages have arrived like a home answering machine and there's only one inbox for all types of message. Text messages, MMS or voicemail - they're all just messages to a user, only the industry frets about the differences.

There is method in the simplification. It is not just to make lives easier, it could encourage extended use and therefore raise the average revenue per use of this large market segment. It is not guaranteed but the investment, whilst clever and focused, is low and this is a market segment with more upside than down.

In his book The Design of Everyday Things Don Norman highlights the challenges of ease of use for even simple objects such as doors and extends it to technology with the concept of the invisible computer - you shouldn't be thinking about the device you're using, just the task in hand.

The benefit is the change in behaviour this encourages in the user - simplicity generates familiarity which leads to more usage. If Vodafone can effectively tap into this design psychology, Simply will have been worthwhile for their business. If they or other vendors can take it beyond this market segment to include business users, it will be worthwhile for the entire industry.