On a recent business trip to Austin, I stayed at my father’s house. It’s a beautiful home – with the confounding exception of the guest bathroom. The builders, for reasons I can’t even fathom, decided to install an individual switch for every light, as well as for the vent and heat lamp. As I fumbled around for the right combination for a successful shower and shave, I found myself wondering, why is simple so hard?lightswitch

Complex design is far easier and takes much less planning than simple design. It encompasses what your user might want to do, rather than understanding exactly what your user needs. Simplicity, it seems, requires more thought, planning, research and vision.

You really don’t need to look further than Apple to see the benefits of simplicity. One of Steve Jobs’ first actions when he returned to the company was to reduce the number of computers they sold, allowing customers to easily identify which machine was appropriate for them.

Similarly, with the iPod, simple navigational design on both the player and the iTunes store played a crucial role in its success. Later, Apple used the same philosophy when designing the iPhone. No company has made it easier to purchase and consume digital content.

Apple, of course, has entire teams it can dedicate to keeping things simple. What can you do as a young company?

Here are some things to keep in mind as you strive toward simplicity with your strategic marketing and product planning:

Begin with a core set of product needs – Above all, it’s critical to know your essential deliverables. What needs must be met and what features are essential to most directly meet those needs? Articulate an initial vision of your product or service with the bare essentials.

Always look to eliminate features in your design – Spend as much time analyzing what you can eliminate from your product as you do analyzing what should be in your product. It takes very little thought to add features, but the end result is usually a complicated mess. By constantly adding elements to your product, you risk making the user experience more complex and less enjoyable.

Customers don’t always know best – This sounds like heresy I know, but hear me out. Customer interaction is essential to most successful products, but the questions you ask are crucial. Asking your customers what they need and what problems they are trying to solve is the key. Do not spend a lot of time asking for feature requests. When you validate your product, focus on whether it meets their need and not what they want to see. Unrestrained feature requests result in bloat – and will cripple your development team.

Have vision – It’s essential to be able to look at your product as a whole and understand how it will ultimately be used. Vision based off of a deep understanding of market needs – not feature requests – revolutionizes industries. Feature driven development, for instance, would have resulted in an iPhone with a keyboard. (As an aside, you should always look for such vision as key criteria of the companies you work for and purchase from.)

Know when to say no – Careful market analysis will teach you when not to pursue an idea. Look at your company as if you were a skeptical outsider as you decide upon new initiatives. Time and company resources are precious for an early stage company. Successful startups typically do not stray from a single successful vision.

Simplicity is key. By eliminating features and truly understanding how your product will be used, you’re much more likely to strike a chord with consumers.

Oh, and if you’re a builder, do me a favor: Don’t give me five light switches when two will suffice.

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