As new and annual product upgrades over-complicate our already busy lives, we crave simplicity in our gadgets more than ever. By focusing on simplicity, businesses can better meet demand and sustain competitive advantage, writes Yuliana Safari, Engagement Lead, Ipsos Strategy3.

We're seemingly in a Groundhog Day of tech updates, new features, and CEOs taking the stage to introduce a reinvented gadget to seduce customers into purchasing a shiny new number.

While more options may make our apps and toys more powerful, they've also become much harder to keep up with. A paradox of technology that Don Norman aptly described once in The Design of Everyday Things, "The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use."

We crave simplicity

While many brand leaders and user experience specialists advocate for user-friendly design, few brands truly deliver on this promise. However, companies like Bang-Olufsen, Google, and Apple have shown that simplicity is possible. They have stripped their products down to their core essentials, creating products that are both functional and easy to use – marrying form and function.

These brands echo one of the core principles of Dieter Rams – arguably one of the most important industrial designers of the 20th century – that “good design is as little as possible…because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials.”

At a human level, this wisdom could be taken as common sense. While we're multi-faceted beings with a variety of tastes and needs, we're also overloaded by life, work, and emails. It's no secret that a focus on shareholder returns has skyrocketed productivity with no reflection in increased pay. Not to mention that while the world has rapidly advanced in the last 50 years, our minds are still wired the same as they were centuries ago. Simply put: we're struggling to keep up.

Incremental improvement is weakening customer demand

The underlying cause behind complicated tech products? An inherent drive for incremental, additive innovation.

Incremental improvement of existing products is a driving factor behind a brand’s innovation efforts, be this through the release of new flavors or features. And so, customers are marketed products that we necessarily didn't ask for, or need – a classic case of tech brands over-shooting consumer needs. Brands then end up with a smaller pool of customers not willing to pay a premium price for an upgraded product.

This laser focus on incremental innovation by sustaining brands is not only overshooting customer demand, but it's also leading consumers to drop to the low end of the market, for example, choosing products that are just 'good enough' for the 'job to be done.' Case in point: in the same week that Apple announced that the iPhone has weakened demand, Motorola announced five new budget phones.

This overcomplication of tech is not just happening with our phones, but in all the gadgets that surround our lives: TVs, cameras, laptops, smart-watches, touchscreen refrigerators, etc. To keep up with modern society and be productive, customers are expected to understand how to synchronize apps and smart devices, manage Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, navigate closed environments and so forth. These products add complexity to our already busy and chaotic lives and assume that we possess knowledge of their specific workings. Unfortunately, the technology industry is advancing so rapidly that it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to keep pace. Additionally, a string of privacy-related scandals in the technology sector has resulted in even greater misunderstandings and confusion regarding how these products operate.

All these choices and complications are not only frustrating but also unsustainable, contributing to climate and sustainability crises, with brands looking to streamline their offerings in the face of supply chain storages and a climate crisis.

Designing products that are intentionally reductive

When a business's default path to innovation defaults to searching for additive transformations, it fails to see an entirely different set of opportunities. As a result, customers are marketed products that we necessarily didn't ask for, need, or want.

Rather, companies should focus on ‘subtractive innovation’. Which is intentionally simplifying products, both in form and function to eliminate unnecessary complexity from the product experience. Essentially, harnessing the power of selective restraint and being intentionally reductive when designing products and their experiences.

The benefits of the subtractive innovation method are three-fold:

  1. Cost reduction. By removing elements and streamlining products, businesses can reduce tech/manufacturing costs that can be passed on to consumers through more competitive pricing. A significant factor in today's global economic climate.
  2. Improved customer satisfaction. In a world where consumers expect seamless convenience, removing unnecessary complexity will reduce friction in the consumer experience and offer a reprieve from constant demands on consumers’ time.
  3. Sustainability. By reducing the complexity of products and services, subtractive innovation helps reduce resource use, helping contribute to a reduced environmental impact.

Ironically, to create simplicity, we must first embrace the messy middle by identifying core requirements that provide the most value to the user. By understanding the elements that are most important to a customer’s product or service use, businesses can optimize form and function.

Is this a case to bring design into the boardroom? Possibly. Is it a case to bring forth innovation by focusing on what consumers really need? Absolutely. In a world of constant updates and overwhelming choice, consumers are increasingly seeking out products that simplify their lives. By focusing on simplicity, companies can better meet customer demand and sustain competitive advantage.