UK2 Group 2014 – on VPS.net
Too clever: Why simple technology is the key to popularity
Does anyone really understand how BitCoin works? Well okay yes, a lot of people do, but still, the virtual currency is a furiously difficult concept to wrap your head around. You create BitCoin from mining them on your computer, but even if that makes sense to you, the cryptocurrency hit a a major snag earlier this year when a BitCoin mining pool called GHash.io gained control of 51% of all mining power. This means the pool could hack the system by blocking transactions, or spending coins that don’t belong to them. Experts are working on a solution to this potentially fatal flaw to what is supposed to be a decentralised currency, but it doesn’t negate the simple fact that BitCoin is probably far too complicated to ever take off as a commonplace technology.
Long gone are the days when inventing something first was enough for success, because originality will only get you so far – what we care about now is quality. What “quality” means has changed over time: people have been drawn to things that look flash, or to advanced functions, while other times we have been after the cheapest. But right now, quality means user-friendly, and what that means for companies is great design.
Take the MP3 player – it was Apple who popularised the MP3 music player by way of the iPod, but the company was far from the first to imagine or manufacture such a device. Sony came up with the idea with the Walkman portable cassette player in 1978, before Fraunhofer IIS came along with the first MP3 player in 1995. The iPod didn’t see the light of day until 2001. So why had the many different MP3 players that came before failed to fire up the public’s imagination? It’s not like they hadn’t been selling the same idea: a portable music player where you can store a whole library of songs.
What set the iPod aside was its extreme user-friendliness, made possible by a uniquely simple design. The inner workings of the device were just as complicated as the less popular competitors, but all the user could see was one button and one wheel. Anyone who’s ever tried to programme a 1980s video player can testify to the fact that user-friendliness was not always a priority for technology companies. Today it’s a different world – can you imagine downloading a smartphone app that comes with a manual? Instead we download all these complex apps that require no instruction at all. We just open them, and it all just seems obvious.
While the product needs to be sophisticated to do what people want, the challenge is to keep the surface as clean and uncluttered as possible people can easily work it out. Additional features can then be added in a second layer, accessible for those who are interested. An example of how this can be done is Tumblr, the blogging platform now owned by Yahoo!. Tumblr is possibly the simplest blogging platform out there, giving users minimal control over their layout. But the user interface is beautifully designed, making it very easy for anyone to start blogging without having to read a manual, let alone knowing anything about coding.
It may be tempting to make technology more complicated in an effort to fit in more functions, but companies should keep in mind it was Facebook’s more structured – yet limited – layout that became the social media platform of choice, even though MySpace was there first and offered more choice of expression. In the technology race, simple will often beat complex.