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When businesses design products, they often design for their own simplicity, not the customer's PHOTO: Robert Couse-Baker

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity.

We have a basic tool we use to record what customers are doing when we observe them trying to complete tasks on websites or apps. One of the things the tool does is record time. A Begin button records the start of a task, and an End button records the end of a task. However, the people analyzing the data asked us if we could sync times with the recording of the measurement session itself.

All our sessions are run remotely using software such as GoToMeeting or WebEx. We record every session so that we can later analyze it. What our analysts wanted was that the file we create from the tool would sync up with the time of the video file. For example, an interesting observation might be made in the analysis file, and then it would be great to jump to the video and see exactly what was happening.

Anyway, our very flexible and helpful developer, Patrick O’Beirne, went about solving the problem. The initial solution created a file with time in two columns. In column A was the time for each task. In column B was the overall time from beginning to end of the session.

I asked Patrick why there were two columns. He explained that it was the easiest way to ensure backward compatibility, allowing the new version of the tool to be able to analyze older files. And it was just one extra column.

I was expecting that everything to do with time could be managed in one column. Patrick explained that, yes, this could be done but it would take a bit more thinking. It would also be a bit more complicated to do, and would require a bit more testing to ensure everything was done right.

Organizations have always designed for simplicity for themselves. Invariably, the cheaper and faster option is the one that pushes the complexity onto the customer — the person who needs to use the thing.

Like Rome, complex-to-use products and websites aren’t built in a day. Complexity creeps up on you, one small decision at a time. And, of course, the complexity for the customer is usually hidden, whereas the complexity for the organization is all-too-evident.

Many design and development environments that I come across are very driven by deadlines. There just isn’t time to simplify for the customer. And it’s more expensive. And it’s harder. You have to think more, be more inventive, do that really difficult thing of thinking deeply about use. And it’s just one more little change, one more minor inconvenience.

You must relentlessly ask: Is this harder for the customer to do? Relentlessly. Because, today, in an increasing number of areas, if it’s not easy-to-use, it’s dead in the water. To survive and thrive in digital times, you must keep making your customers lives simpler, and that means taking on more complexity for yourself and your organization.