Engineers must learn to cut out features and too much flexibility because design constraints can provide a path to sophistication and customer satisfaction.
NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, UK — Why is it that some products take off like a rocket and others languish on the launch pad? Sometimes the rocket-ship products look so simple and so limited that we, as technical people, wonder who would ever buy them. For example, how could a phone with no removable battery, no 3G Internet, and only one type of calendar ever be a success?
I can answer with one word: constraints.
As inveterate tinkerers, engineers fear constraints. We fear that one day we might want to change that battery or use the Yoruba calendar for a month or two. We also know that flexibility is rarely a bad thing while working through prototypes and product iterations and find it hard to understand why others would not want as much flexibility as possible. So we design products based on what we want.
But we should be thinking like our customer. More importantly we should be thinking like our non-technical customer who is pressed for time and has no inclination to read the instruction manual.
It has been demonstrated time and again that the average person wants a product that does one or two things very well. By giving people too much choice we induce the effect of decision paralysis -- the idea that the user has so many options, he or she effectively has none, as they don't know what the best choice is.
A great example of this -- and I'm sorry to use a software company as an example -- is the photo sharing service Instagram. Instagram was not an original idea. There had been plenty of photo sharing services before it, but it's the only one to build a user base quickly and successfully, and its constraints helped.
Instagram only allows you to take square photos; initially it only let you add one of a few filters; and it limited your caption to a short, tweet-length description. No albums, no contrast and brightness settings, no cropping, no video (until recently), and no printing. These constraints enabled people to quickly adopt the app and use it with minimal instruction and training -- and, most importantly, the filters made everyone's photos look sort of the same, so it didn't matter if you were a professional photographer or not.
Adding constraints to a system often produces beneficial outcomes that wouldn't exist without them. In Instagram's case this was its upload speed. By limiting the post-processing you can do to a photo, Instagram was able to start uploading the image to its servers as soon as it was taken. The processing power required to swap among a few predetermined filters was so little that it could handle that on the server side rather than requiring it be done on the client side, and the application becoming a mini photoshop.
The lesson here is that when designing products we don't always need to fulfill every corner case or provide everyone with a removable battery, so to speak. We don't simply want to avoid feature creep but to actively banish features and options that don't improve the core experience of your product. As Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have said, presumably in Italian: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
— Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.