Friday, March 30, 2012

Simplicity, Complexity and Completeness: telling the whole story, succinctly

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I have a reputation amongst my business partners and friends for writing long emails. And they like to let me know about it, usually through some fun jesting over Twitter.

Recently, a topic came up on Twitter about simplicity being a trend in design. And I agreed that complexity leads to confusion and failure.

But my friend was quick to point out my penchant for long emails, essentially equating length with complexity. I responded that my emails are not necessarily complex, but complete.

This got me thinking: Are length and complexity the same?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I love simplicity. Just look at the logo designs I find inspiring. But simplicity at the cost of completeness is dangerous.

Let's hear what Albert Einstein has to say on simplicity:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
I remember having my high school physics teacher explain to us Einstein's theory of general relativity. The concepts involved in this theory are not simple. Otherwise it wouldn't have taken 2 weeks for us to work through the explanation and exercises. But the theory is as simple as it can be.

Einstein understood that complexity is dangerous to communication and understanding. But neither should one sacrifice a complete theory to the idol of simplicity.

Simplicity does not have to mean incomplete.

Now for a more business-minded example:
Imagine your client writes you a lengthy email on how you messed up their order. How would you respond: A simplistic, "Don't worry, we're on it," or maybe a 1500 word essay on how you're not at fault?

Do either of these options satisfy your client?

Probably not. Sure, they want the situation remedied—they want action. And while the simplistic answer might feel good for a moment, it's incomplete—eventually they want more details. When? How? What exactly are you going to do? But they certainly don't need a 14 point essay either.

So what's the right answer?

Be as succinct (simple) as possible to tell a complete story.

Give details...when necessary. But certainly don't add superfluous ones either. Get to the point—but make sure you make the whole point.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What do retro video games and branding have in common?

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Image by betacontinua
Great retro games thrive on simplistic features. So do great brands.

Think about it: Pong, Super Mario Brothers, Asteroid, Galaga, Street Fighter, Donkey Kong...what makes them great? Their designers chose a limited feature set and ran with it as far as they could.

Shaun Inman explains the simplicity of Super Mario Brothers in a recent interview on The Verge:
The best classic games feature a limited skill set that is thoroughly explored through level design. Abilities are gradually introduced in non-threatening environments, interplay between the various abilities is explored, and environmental safety is removed. 
Super Mario Bros. is all about jumping. Mario jumps over holes and onto pipes and platforms. He jumps over or onto enemies. He jumps to collect coins and break bricks. He jumps to reach the top of the flagpole. Mario's fireballs bounce, forcing him to jump for extra precision when aiming. The vast majority of gameplay possibility is designed to reinforce the core mechanic of jumping.
Great brand chase the same philosophy of simplicity.

Take In-and-Out Burger for example. What do they serve? Burgers.

Yeah, they have a few side-items that revolve around burgers (fries, drinks, shakes) but no other main menu item. And even their posted menu is simplistic: do you want a #1, a #2, or a #3...oh and all of them are pretty much the same burger.

What does Starbucks do? Coffee. And then they iterate the crap out of that core product: sizes, flavors, cold vs. hot, etc. Granted they do throw in some food items and other beverages...and time will tell if this is helpful for their brand (I suggest that it might hurt more).

And it's not just the brand's product that can be simplistic. Oftentimes it's the core purpose that should be lifted high and then explored every which way.

Nike is a great example of this. They started with one shoe but now have every kind of apparel item under the sun...not to mention the hottest iPhone app for runners and one of the slickest real-time basketball promotions.

But what is Nike all about? The spirit of personal victory through athletics.

Everything they do is centered on this core value: their ads, their products, even their name. And no matter what they make it is only ever done through the lens of this worldview.

Simplicity in branding doesn't just mean a single product. But it does mean having the guts to focus, to be an expert at your single purpose. Then you can find every means under the sun to accomplish that purpose and iterate to your heart's content.

So how simplistic is your brand? Maybe you've got a million products on your retail site or maybe just one service your provide your clients, but do you know that one purpose your brand is all about?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

How to Create Successful User Experiences

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Fast Company recently posted the first article in a series on the need for user experience design in brands' communications. I highly, highly recommend this article to anyone in marketing, design, social media, and communications. There are so many golden nuggets of UX wisdom in here, I can't stress it enough: read this article.

My main takeaway: In the hyper-technology age we live in, brands must begin valuing user experience over technology. Don't use it unless you plan to use it well.

Here's a few quote highlights from the article to whet your appetite and get your UX brain juices flowing:

For brands to compete for attention now takes something greater than mere presences in the right channels or support for the most popular devices...without thoughtful UX, consumers meander without direction, reward, or utility. And their attention, and ultimately loyalty, follows.
...businesses are designing for the sake of designing, without regard for how someone feels, thinks, or acts as a result.
The primary function of UX is the development of an architecture that creates a delightful, emotional, and sensory experience. 
Successful UX evokes engagement or purpose, affects sentiment, and influences behavior.
Engagement is not a campaign, it’s a continuum where technology is merely an enabler for a greater vision, mission, and purpose.
You can read the whole article here.