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Is Less Always More? (Simplify More, It’s Better)

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 7, 2008

The blogosphere is such an interesting place.  Read one article and it casts you out into several others, each of which in turn may lead you to new treasures.  Fred Wilson’s “Thinking About Groups” took me on such a journey.  He is writing about whether the world needs any new products for the groups sector (e.g. Yahoo or Google Groups et al), but at a higher level, he’s endorsing the idea that Less is More.

I’m a major consumer of Groups for all my special interests, so I read on with interest.  I’m not going to dwell too much on groups other than to say I think Fred reached a conclusion I want to analyze carefully.  He references Charlie O’Donnell’s excellent post on groups for some insights on the current Groups state-of-the-art.  Charlie’s view is that every group wants to be different, so there can be no single piece of software that is all things to all groups.  Customization features prominently in Charlie’s dicussion, whether that be the look and feel (e.g. the branding) of the group or how it chooses to communicate and what tools are available within the group. 

Charlie makes a lot of sense to me.  Most groups are too vanilla, especially the Yahoo/Google style.  You have to strain to get the essential goodness and uniqueness of the group out of the bland presentation.  Many people opt to participate with such groups entirely via email because going there in person doesn’t yield that much better an experience.

Fred then quotes another post, Stan Schroeder’s “Why Less is More and How to Unlock the Web.”  This post starts from a strong manifesto:

Features, I’ve recently come to realize, can be obstacles. Problems. The more powerful an application is, the more specialized it is, and thus with increased power its intended audience shrinks, and ironically, it becomes more, not less, vulnerable to competition.

Like any good VC, Fred Wilson wants to sift the world for patterns: common threads that can be teased out of the matrix to provide a keener understand of how the world really works.  Schroeder’s view that the things that start from less win seems like one of those threads, so a quick combination with Charlie’s minimalist list of group features as being the simplest group product possible and that becomes Fred’s proposal for the best way to attack that market.  It’s certainly not a bad start, and yet the world hasn’t really played out that way most of the time, so it bears further scrutiny.  The “less is more” mantra often doesn’t win.  It isn’t quite how the computer world works.  Lord knows we have wanted it to be, but it just isn’t. 

We need to be really careful not to mistake the apparent simplicity of less for real simplicity that can lead to a paradigm shift.  Look at the history of software.  There have been endless attempts by the minimalist to topple the complex.  Minimalist word processors.  Minimalist spreadsheets.  Minimalist databases.  Even whole Minimalist Companies like Software Publishing with their PFS series for those who still remember that.  Visicalc was less than Lotus 1-2-3 which in turn was less than Excel.  All the lesser products lost to products with greater functionality.  It was just a cycle thing–the later products were still uncovering features that 80% of the audience cared enough to switch for.  Before you hang your hat totally on minimalism, make sure you understand how that 80/20 rule stacks up for your domain.

Schroeder hangs his thesis on examples like Twitter.  Why do people stubbornly stick to Twitter when it goes down so often and there are other more powerful sevices?  He bases his theory on the idea that it is because Twitter is nothing but a super-simple API, and hence a platform.  But he misses some very important steps when making that leap.  First, it may be that Twitter has every feature a micro-blogging product needs to be successful with 80% of the audience and no new features (not even working more often!) suffice to persuade that audience to switch. 

Second, application preceeds platform as people like Geoffrey Moore are fond of telling us.  Twitter was a great application before it was a platform.  It built it’s following as an application, not a platform.  This may be just another way of saying it covered the 80/20 functionality side well enough before it became a platform.

Third, Twitter is by its nature prone to network effects.  That’s a built in defense mechanism for the first mover in a space if they can get big fast enough because it creates enormous lock in.  Why would I leave Twitter when I have no way to reconstruct the network I’m involved in there?  Could I even do it if I wanted to?  Can I face starting over?  It’s not a matter of less being more, it’s a matter of more (in this case more network) being a lot more.

While I think capturing the 80/20 feature race was important for Twitter, at best I may agree with Schroeder when network effects are this strong that they trump that feature race.  In that case, it’s important to jump in and start swimming as soon as possible so as to build a bigger network faster.  Just remember that if every category was overridden by network effects above all else there would be no fast follower strategy.  No Facebooks, because the MySpaces would have done it all.  There are worlds where network effects trump all.  Twitter may be one, and eBay has certainly been another, but not all worlds function that way.  In fact very few worlds really have significant network lock-in.

It is a mistake to conflate “less” with the only reason for success.  One of my favorite UI design quotes is Alan Kay’s, “Simple things should be simple and hard things should be possible.”  Start from there and you can go a long ways to understanding simple.  Being the first on the block to raise the level of what is simple to do in your software is a tremendous advantage.  It means you can deliver more to people who can only deal with less.  If the more you deliver matters to enough of the market, and network effects don’t create too much switching costs, you will win over less.

In many ways the evolution of Web 2.0 has been exactly this story of making “more” simpler.  How else can we view Social Networks, Blogs, Twitter, and yes, Groups?  Aren’t they just successive iterations on how an individual or a group can have a web site that is tailored for what they want to get out of it very very simply?  In particular, isn’t it about dynamic web sites that change in some way and have behavior rather than just the old static HTML?  What these new sites have done is to make various previously difficult things simple, and in some cases, they’ve made hard things possible, though we aren’t very far along with that yet on the Web.

The process of making new things simple to win a market is a story that Apple understands extremely well, given their overwhelming focus on the user experience.  There’s nothing really very simple or very “less is more”, about the iPhone, for example.  Yet it gloriously made a bunch of clunky stuff simple and a lot of hard stuff possible. 

Talented UI designers understand these principles.  They know how to order the user interface to keep the simple at the forefront and to avoid confusing with the hard while still retaining the ability to do the hard.  It’s called successive disclosure.  But, to be successful in this way, you have to be absolutely rigorous about UI.  It’s why Apple seems so fascist much of the time.  UI can’t just grow organically or that complexity will seep out and poison the UI.  Companies that understand this have a huge advantage over those that don’t. 

By the way, for yet another take on groups, take a look at Bigtent.  They’ve made some things that were previously hard on Yahoo or Google Groups Simple.  It’s working well for them!   At Helpstream, we’re working hard to simplify customer service, and that’s working well for us too.  The biggest challenge with simple is that it creeps up on you.  It looks so simple until you’re done doing what used to be hard and suddenly realize you’re now ahead.

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