How (and Why) to Keep it Simple


I had a roommate in college who spent a semester in recently-post-communist Russia. When she got back, we went grocery shopping and I got to see first-hand the rule of simplicity. We walked into the grocery store and hit the bread aisle. She froze. She had spend five months in a place where there was only one choice of bread: bread or no bread. Now, she was in a central Texas mega-store and she had to choose between roughly 100 different types, shapes and brands of bread.

I just grabbed some and went to the next aisle.

This is the difference between you and your customer. You are hip-deep in your industry. You know the difference between every setting, permutation, option, brand, make and model. it is second-nature to you to know what you want, who makes it, and how to get it. Complexity is better for you because you are the top percent of buyers in terms of understanding the product.

Compare that to your customers, the other 99 percent. They don't know the difference between a widget made using plastic expansion molds and those made with extruded forms. The reason why you choose copper pipe instead of PVC. The pros and cons of oil paint versus acrylic or latex. They don't know because they think about these things once every never. They rely on you to have the expertise to guide them safely and smartly through the options.

So let's talk about your web site. Or your catalog. Or your store. If I came in, knowing nothing about your product, would I feel confident I'm going to get the right solution, or am I going to get confused by the myriad of options and walk out?

There's a fairly recent fad of simplicity in web design, and I think there's a reason: Too many choices confuses your users, so they forget to buy.

The ultimate example of this is Google. Look at Google and Yahoo!. Either way, you're going to be able to submit a query of infinite permutations. Google eliminates all the other options and lets you focus on search. Yahoo wants you to know about sports scores, celebrity news, political shifts, gossip, the Dow Jones price, your local weather and about 17 different tailored ads. All of these things distract you from your task at hand.

Do you have a product that 40 percent of your customers buy? Is it placed front and center of your web site or is it trapped somewhere inside? Make that product your anchor product: it helps you sort out the "easy customers" who want "the usual" from the customers who have specialized needs and will require more service and care to complete the sale. Your "easy" customers will be thrilled you made their lives easier and your more complex customers will appreciate the extra care.

This is the strategy of simplicity. Don't tout the 20,000 products, options, features you have if most people really only need four. You will end up scaring away more customers who haven't educated themselves than you gain from people who options shop.

Keep it simple, smarty.

James Ellis is a Chicago-area digital strategist with Google Analytics certification. All he wants for Christmas are really nice socks. You can get in touch with James at to tell him how many ways he's wrong.

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