Simplification as Innovation
The Future of Work

Simplification as Innovation

by Elizabeth Shassere
Simplification as Innovation

Over the past several years that I have mentored startups and startup weekends, one of the biggest and most frequent mistakes I see is one of over-engineering a product or service at the beginning.

Most of us will be aware of the danger of this, but somehow our human nature, perhaps simply our ego, drives us to build the whizziest, fanciest, most complex thing we can imagine.

In fact, since we have dreamed this product, and this dream has motivated us to take on the hard work and uncertainty of creating a startup or getting involved in a product or service development, we can’t help ourselves but to throw everything at it.

The draw of creating this fantastic thing that everybody loves and admires and can’t live without (and that happens to make us rich!) is powerful.

There are whole books written on the dangers of this, about being LEAN or working agile, or any myriad of buzzwords out there that tries to convince you to start small and simple and work your way up or face certain ruin.

But we are humans after all, and we are driven to do more, better, and find the glory in our next great idea for the next big thing.

Perhaps thinking about it differently will help you to put the brakes on and listen to the gurus on this one.

Innovation is as much about what to leave out as what to put in.

Innovation is about taking away as much as adding to.

Think about it…

Are you old enough to remember iPods? They just had a simple wheel on a sleek front that would allow you to open up and navigate your whole catalog of music.

My AppleTV remote still follows this design. The same small wheel, sleek front, does all I need it to navigate a whole world of streaming.

Deconstructing tech for accessibility and profit

I recently spoke at an event on Global Innovation. I was a non-techie tech startup founder amongst several of my area’s most highly technologically advanced companies.

It was a massive challenge to overcome my Imposter Syndrome, because for starters

  1. I’m not a techie
  2. My startup and my product are about simplifying tech to improve accessibility

But what I learned from the audience’s response to what I shared was that innovation is commonly thought of as coming up with the next most whizziest thing in tech or manufacturing.

It was almost as if a cartoon light bulb went off over everyone’s head when I was describing that innovation is about improving design so that things work better and smarter, and that this can as often mean taking something away rather than adding a new feature, function, or option.

In 1854, when the physician John Snow was tasked with stopping the cholera outbreak in London that was killing thousands of people, he took the pump handle off the well. It redirected people’s source of water and changed the way they collected it.

It stopped the transmission of cholera dead in its tracks.

This design changed human behaviour, helped confirm the source of the disease, and enabled redesign of water systems that didn’t spread disease.

All this from taking one simple function away.

Likewise, a revolution in street and pedestrian safety took the same approach.

Naked streets is an experiment in addressing human behavior through a redesign that indeed takes quite a bit away, rather than “adding to”.

Naked streets remove road markings, demarkations of pedestrian versus vehicle space, and uses design flow to influence movement and attention.

This “taking away” means that both pedestrians and drivers (including cyclists) are paying much more attention to where they are going and what is happening around them. Towns that have introduced naked streets have reported a significant drop in road accidents.

The results may be debatable, but the fact that this experimental innovation involved the taking away of rather than the adding to shows the importance of this way of thinking in design of any product or service.

You may find that you have taken away too much, but you can then add one feature, function, or option until you reach optimum usability with minimal cost, maintenance, or worse, user confusion.

Which is, of course, where you should have started in the first place.

You have to be clever and visionary to take away, to simplify. It is much easier to throw everything in as you clock your way through all the cool things you want your product to do. For each thing, add a button or a feature. Easy!

Easy, until your customer is so confused you end up with endless help calls, or they get exhausted by your product and want to use something else.

Easy, until the tracking and maintenance of each feature, function, and option is costing you $$$ to keep up, keep straight, and debug.

When you are building in things that your customer didn’t even know she needed, it is way past time to stop and think about what you are making and why.

It is time for a bit of innovation in “less is more”. It makes the user experience more satisfactory, makes a better, more efficient product or service, and gives you room to grow as you learn from customer behavior and feedback.

Everybody wins!

My first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams is out now. You can find access to a free pdf workbook that accompanies it on my website. If you do read my book, I would love to hear your comments. 

I write about my leadership and management experience of 20+ years, and all I have learned as a founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience. You can see more here.

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