Simple: It’s not about the UI

Having spent the last three days at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, I have seen a lot of companies. There are some great ideas and some rather foolish ones, but what has struck me is the power of simplicity.

I am not talking about simplicity in the usual context of User Experience (UI). We are all well aware that simple design is a maxim of Web 2.0, but I am more interested, and frankly impressed, by simplicity on the dimension of idea. The real question you need to ask is, how simple is my idea?

The power of simple ideas as they relate to Web 2.0 is critical and truly drive the success or failure of a business. Again, in stark contrast to the quality of UI driving success. Now, I am a huge fan of elegant UI and I really don’t enjoy ugly applications, but it is not a key principle to a successful on-line business. For all who doubt that, go to eBay and post a product for sale. Now imagine that interface when they launched. Yes, it’s better now. No, it’s not a great experience. Yet, here they are.

The power of simplicity affects so many dimensions of your success. Let me elaborate with a few key questions you might ask about an idea:

  1. Is it easily understandable?
  2. Is is broadly applicable?
  3. Does is provide specific value?
  4. Is it built on Ruby on Rails?

The most powerful concepts are the most simple (and this is way before AJAX).

Think about the Roman aqueducts – They have a very purpose driven design to move water from A to B. Imagine the impact that concept (and its execution) had on civilization. Every facet of life was affected.

Fast forward a few thousand years to today. Will the most impactful ideas in business be those around complex applications (ie. HR apps, Banking apps, etc)? Certainly those are necessary and will provide value to a subset of the population, but I am speaking of impact or utility.

The reason those applications will not win the prize for utility is their lack of reach. This again is the power of simple. If I build a business application for managing payroll at a retailer, it solves a serious problem for retailers. However, retailers are a small segment of the population, and thus, our impact is limited to that set of customers.

Now take something like HTTP, TCP/IP, the browser, instant messaging, etc, etc. These are at their core simple concepts, executed well. Simplicity in concepts allows for broad applicability in usage and therefore creates opportunity for a high level of utility.

The question for all of us out there in business is how to reconcile this fact with the great work by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm. His premise is built largely on the concept of picking a niche, building to suit that niche, and then moving to related markets. So does that mean that the Chasm is no longer valid from a business strategy perspective? Or, does it mean that there is more than one way to skin a cat?




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