Keeping Your Offerings Easy to Use (Part 2)

 


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Striving for simplicity in the design of our products and services is a major step we can take toward ensuring customer satisfaction, boosting our bottom line, and keeping our relationships smooth and headache-free.

In Part 1 of this series, we explored a formula for customer happiness - through the lens of what makes customers unhappy. One reason for customer frustration is that over time, many products and services tend to evolve, eventually becoming too complicated and difficult to use. In Part 2 (this article), we'll probe more deeply into how to reverse this trend by simplifying what we have to offer.

A Quick Review of the Ease-of-Use Basics

In Part 1, we recognized that consumers expect our offerings to work exactly as advertised. Yet our products and services can introduce complex requirements and burdens of their own, some of which can even prevent customers from doing what they were trying to accomplish in the first place! When this occurs, buyers not only fail to become “raving fans, " they often take their business elsewhere without ever telling us why.

We then explored four ease-of-use considerations:

- Designing offerings to function as simply as possible, without adding busywork - Striving to support customers’ primary goals, ideally through built-in guidance - Enabling customers to explore more complex features only when they're ready - Making all elements of a product or system fully compatible and consistent

Where Do You Draw the Line?

Where should you draw the line between simplicity and complexity when creating or enhancing your products or services? Especially when customers are asking for new enhancements left and right - demanding endless features and options - how do you know when it's time to rein in the expansion and revert back to basics? Isn't the goal to give customers everything they ask for? Won't that make them happy?

The easiest way I can think of to draw the line between simplicity and complexity is along two relative dimensions:

- Making sure the system is easy to use from your customers’ point of view, such as by repeatedly testing the interface design with representative users.

- Making sure the system is easy to maintain and test from your point of view. Unfortunately, there's no single alarm bell that goes off to warn everyone that a system has become too complicated to manage. Consider evaluating these angles each time you plan to upgrade your offerings, since over-complexity is a phenomenon that can easily overtake us.

To gain even more insight into this problem from an intriguing point of view, I recommend a book called “Necessary But Not Sufficient" by Eli Goldratt. It's an enjoyable example of a type of writing called “business fiction" - because it lets fabricated characters explore a puzzling business problem and gradually discover the many sides of the solution. A main theme of this book exposes why an exceedingly competent software development team suddenly cannot figure out how to continue to maintain a highly successful but extremely complex software product.

The team is experiencing this problem because the product had grown over time to contain too much functionality. That situation occurred because (you guessed it!) customers kept asking for more and more features. Each new feature set increased the possible interactions within the system almost exponentially! It thus had become too complex to test or maintain, and equally challenging to use.

That's the problem with complex systems - they can quickly reach a point at which they contain too many combinations of variables to validate in a lifetime, much less within the time available to release the product.

How Do We Know When Something Is as Easy to Use as Possible?

Often, we may try to think about simplicity and ease of use in terms of some kind of measurement. In that respect, ease of use might mean making something easy to follow from the standpoint of comprehension, for example, such as a reading grade level. If we apply a reading comprehension formula to our documents, we can find out how easily people at a certain grade level can understand them.

While measurements are important tools that offer useful ways to compare things, I would like to raise the bar even higher - much higher - even if it sounds idealistic. That is, I would like to have us consider what it would take to make our products or services completely transparent to our customers, as if our offerings could act almost invisibly.

Imagine that each time your customers use your offerings, it's as if they have a personal assistant working the behind the scenes to do whatever the product or service is supposed to do. Imagine that assistant or agent anticipating what each customer needs to have done, and then doing it, practically without being asked!

I realize that's a tall order, and some people will surely feel that you'd need some pretty fancy programming to make anything work so transparently. But the next best thing should sound more achievable - and that is, making our offerings as self-guiding and foolproof as possible.

In conclusion, drawing the line between simplicity and complexity can be difficult to do. Simplification brings many rewards. But if you must add more complexity, consider whether you can either hide it elegantly, or guide people through it effortlessly and painlessly. Let these be your next major goals, and I guarantee you'll applaud the results!

Copyright 2006 Adele Sommers

Adele Sommers, Ph. D. is the creator of the “Straight Talk on Boosting Business Performance" success formula. To learn more about her tools and resources and sign up for other free tips like these, visit her site at http://LearnShareProsper.com

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