Epiphany #1: In a Complex World, Simplicity is King

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  • 4 September 2014
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Part one of, “A designer in the business world: three epiphanies.”

Nowhere to hide.

The amount of advertisements and marketing messages we’re exposed to each day is still up for debate. But, I’d say most would agree we’re nearing saturation.

Marketers are getting more aggressive with where they’re placing ads to try and catch us in unexpected places. And, the addition of smartphones, wearables and other connected devices—alongside friends, families, coworkers and brands via push notifications—are adding to the stream of distractions constantly begging for our attention. This incessant inundation of beeping and vibrating often creates a perception in our minds the world is extremely complex.

There’s simply nowhere to hide.

Making matters worse, a large amount of this content isn’t easy to consume or prioritize. So, we easily write off what appears complex as it just cannot compete with the simpler, more clear information. While this behavior is rational in response to marketing, when it leaks into other areas of our lives; reading and responding to emails, notifications, invitations, etc; it can easily be perceived as rude at best and asocial at worst.

Those of us who haven’t yet given up have no choice but to become a bit numb.

“..yes, modern life is too much, and each day is getting much more much-er. The only sane option is to opt out of the game and become a recluse, because you can not lose if you do not play,” designer and writer, Frank Chimero writes in a blog post.

For those of us who haven’t yet given up on the game have no choice but to become a bit numb. We subconsciously learn to drown out the messages where we expect them. We become desensitized to the familiar, making it harder to not only gain attention, but also to hold it.

One strategy to combat this is to catch people in unexpected places; places where they haven’t yet learned to ignore. And, while this strategy may work temporarily, in most cases it may not create a good association with the target audience. It might make them feel uncomfortable or irritated and create negative associations (obnoxious pop-up and content blocking ads anyone?). Ultimately this method is not sustainable. It merely compounds the problem. The more people are barraged, the more they learn to ignore. The more they ignore, the more they are barraged.

Make life simple again.

Instead, I pose this strategy: Make your audience feel like life is simple again. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the medium your using and play to it.

About a year ago I, as part of a team, helped out on a project at Microsoft. We were to provide research and recommendations on how a group could reimagine its employee incentive structure. We brought together a team of T-shaped people, with each person bringing a unique depth/skill to the table to deliver a project in a fraction of the normal time.

To be frank, I had no idea what I was doing at the time (luckily my team did). But, that wasn’t the strength I was bringing to the table. My strength was injecting simplicity into our deliverable to make it easier for our client to understand and share.

It all started with a bit of extra front-end work on our part to make it simpler for others.

Most of our research pulled on different combinations of various ‘motivators’. So, I helped design the deliverable while keeping Edward Tufte’s principle of using multiples at the forefront of my mind. This principle is a guide for putting the emphasis on the changes in the design of data and not on how the data is structured. For example, think of a weather forecast. The structure, or layout, of the data from day-to-day is consistent. This enables the changes in data, or weather in this case, from day-today to be easily found rather than re-finding the pieces of data sought for each day.

The result was a meeting I was told was very abnormal for the client. Instead of spending the majority of the time explaining the research and recommendations, we distributed the deliverable and they almost immediately began discussing it. The information we presented was so easy and clear to understand it spoke for itself. We didn’t need to fight for attention or understanding. Instead of talking at each other, we ended up talking with each other. How novel! And, it all started with a bit of extra front-end work on our part to make it simpler for others.

If you can provide simplicity in a world of layered complexity, the extra time and effort will pay off in the end nine times out of ten.* I promise.

*unverified statistic


Contributed by Tim Bowman and Nick Buckley. 78% of US



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