Simplicity: a recurring winning idea

Our lives are unnecessarily complex

Consider the number of forms you should have filled out. Here’s a starter list: insurance (health, vision, dental, house, life, car, …); banks (checks, saving, credit cards), retirement, taxes (state and federal).

Consider the number of options on standard electronics (cell phone, dishwasher, TV, video recorder…)

Consider the length of modern laws (just the Patriot Act is 300 pages long). How can you obey them if you don’t know them?

Consider the mainstream software you use daily, how many features do you really use? Why is the average computer book 500 pages long?

Contrast this to our previous tools: fire, stones, reading, writing, hammers, etc.

The costs

All this unnecessary complexity has a cost and no benefit. Inefficiencies can kill entire national industries. Toyota succeeded while US manufacturers were failing because it focussed on eliminating waste.

Where does this complexity come from?

Ironically, economics! It’s cheaper to add a feature than to change a design, both for existing users (less to learn) and for the tool maker (less to change). Although risk aversion plays a role too…


Among early adopters, simpler often wins. This rarely lasts as new features are added without removing older ones. (PowerPC RISC became as comples as CISC; GPUs, once simple and fast, have become larger than CPUs; Mainframes, minicomputers, microcomputers each replaced their bigger older brothers).

Late adopters, having found it so hard to master one tool, refuse to learn another, perpetuating bad tools. Can we have x86, but faster? Can we have Windows, but without the viruses? Can we have Word, but without the annoying features?

Web 2.0 is just another incarnation of this cycle. Google’s key invention was a simple interface, coupled with page rank. GMail was easy to use: free webmail existed before.

One could think that Web 2.0 is successful because it’s free. 37 signals refute this notion: people subscribe to use their web applications. Why? Because their tools are simpler to use. 37 signals believe in simpler products that do less than the competition. They one down the competition rather than one upping it.. Their philosophy is in their book.

Find It! Keep It! also emphasizes simplicity. Two examples: You don’t create a project or a document. You just go to the URL and press Keep It! Saved webpages and database searches have URLs, just like live pages.

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