Saturday, May 19, 2007

Smaller and Simpler is the Trend. Does That Wag Good User Experience?

The New York Times and Business 2.0 Magazine recently have written articles about technology products getting smaller and simpler. A successful user experience isn’t about size though. What is clear is that if you build something that meets customer goals and creates repeated good experiences, you will be successful. The result of stripping down business requirements to what is most useful to customers is most often smaller products.

Look back to the Apple Newton vs. the original Palm Pilot. In the book, “Defying Gravity” you can see that the political upheaval going on behind the scenes and the required overabundance of technology capabilities contributed to a very ambitious product that arguably did too much. They were focusing on the technology and not the user experience, and they failed to a large degree on providing both to customers. They were famously lampooned on The Simpsons for its flawed handwriting recognition technology, but SNL did a parody showing the Newton being an expensive replacement for Post-it notes. It was funny because it shows the Apple clearly didn’t build something users wanted or needed at the time, and overcomplicated it in the process.

The much smaller and simpler Palm Pilot emerged around the same time and was victorious at getting people to rapidly adopt it. What did it do? Basically it was a handy rolodex and calendar that you could easily carry around. It was usable, smaller, simpler and much cheaper.

Was the palm pilot smaller because of the much smaller feature set than the Newton on purpose? Were there intentional business requirements to build something that was more focused on a simple, good user experience resulting in a smaller size or was it the other way around? More often than not it is the other way around. I think more products would be a lot more successful if the product lifecycle began with defining the goals for a good user experience. We’d probably end up with smaller and simpler gadgets, but not for the sake of being smaller and simpler.

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