Make An Idiot Your Best Friend

 
 
By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2004-12-01
 
 
 

Give yourself a gift this year: an idiot. Then, make him (or her) your best friend. You'll be happy you did.

After all, your success depends on it.

Why? You keep telling yourself the systems you have created are too complex. You are tired of training "users.'' And customers? They're so demanding. They keep complaining about the difficulty of using your Web site to buy what they want.

The reality is that the service your systems—your company—actually provides your employees and customers is simplicity.

Simplicity in using your product. Simplicity in ordering your product. Simplicity in doing business with you.

The information systems business contains some of the best examples of the power of simplicity in the past 25 years.

In 1980, the star in computing was Digital Equipment Corp., pioneer of the "minicomputer" that undercut the mainframe computers of ibm on price and performance.

Conventional thinking has it that DEC's chief executive officer, Ken Olsen, was so blindly devoted to his "disruptive technology,'' in the lexicon of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christiansen, that he failed to take seriously the development of the next one—the personal computer.

You can appreciate Olsen's predicament. Only idiots could love the personal computer. They had ridiculously little processing power at the time. Indeed, an idiot could type faster than the things could put characters on screen. Who could take them seriously?

That misses the point, Christiansen would say. Consider the economic imperatives confronting Olsen, which caused him to mutate into a rational human being. He was selling a product at $250,000 a copy on which he earned a 45% margin. If he pursued a more powerful version of this product, as his sales and marketing team would urge, he could get up to $500,000 in per-unit sales, with a 60% margin. For this, he's supposed to give up the ghost for 40% margins on a product that only pulls in $2,000 a copy? No way.

The only problem: Nearly any idiot could afford $2,000 for a computer. Pretty soon, companies catered to these idiots. The idiots told them how to make these boxes better. Over time, ease of use, low cost and constantly improving performance would win out. Now, we carry music players in our pockets that have 40-billion-character memories.

That product, of course, is the iPod, which is nothing more than a well-packaged hard drive. But its simplicity is what has made it the hottest information system in the consumer world in the past three years.

Even on the Web, where your company's services are migrating, the virtues of simplicity are all too obvious and lucrative. How many billions did Google pull in on its initial public offering this summer? Why? Because the speed or relevancy of its search results are that much better than rivals such as Ask.com? Nope. It's because the simplicity of its interface is so powerful. Any idiot can see what it's supposed to do, and can make instant use of it.

Solar energy has gone nowhere in this country. But solar-powered appliances are making it big in places in Africa and Asia that are off the grid, Christiansen notes. If the appliances can be made to work easily and reliably—for any idiot—there's hope that solar-powered products finally will move up the human food chain, to all parts of the globe.

But your job is to deliver clear, easy-to-use information systems. That means you have to worry about things such as pull-down menus, which are difficult to manipulate, says usability guru Jakob Nielsen. And remember the words of former Cadence Design Systems CEO Joseph Costello: "I've never met a human being who would want to read 17,000 pages of documentation, and if there was, I'd kill him to get him out of the gene pool."

What he's saying: No idiot wants to read a manual. The acid test of that new companywide financial reporting system you put in place for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance is this: Can your chief financial officer operate it without reading a single page of instructions?

If so, you know you have hidden the complexity and delivered a real service. Because then and only then—rim shot, please—will you know that any idiot can use your product.