person on iPhone looking at Instagram
PHOTO: Jaelynn Castillo

“no QWERTY keyboard? Ojhsdodsagfadhjldgs!!”

That was one of the more memorable reactions to the first iPhone back in 2007, and it pretty much summed up what a lot of people were thinking.

We were outraged, and we couldn’t comprehend how Apple’s new phone was going to change the world. But not so shockingly, Apple had seen a massive opportunity in simplifying, streamlining and peeling back the design of a cellphone, rather than adding on. The iPhone wasn’t just better looking and easier to use than its predecessors. With the iPhone, Apple transformed the mobile phone into a smart device with massive utility by removing elements of the physical design of the portable phone and re-imagining what might take place inside. Now, eight versions and more than 1.2 billion iPhone sales later, we’re believers in experiences being more about what’s not there.

It’s almost funny to think that early designs of the iPhone included CD-ROM readers, detachable physical phones and a stylus. Apple knows better than anyone that innovation built on top of obsolete technologies and code bases is not innovation at all. It takes forgetting what already exists, starting from scratch (when possible) and thinking up an entirely new way of doing something to develop exciting new products and services — like those offered by not only Apple, but also Vero, Slack and Amazon.

It’s about simplifying processes by removing steps — steps like plugging something in, entering a password or inserting a key. Streamlining interactions is what adds value without users even realizing it.

In many ways, it’s the brands that fade mundane processes or parts of our lives into the background that make the deepest impact. We should keep that in mind when we think about improving the customer experience, an activity that has become table stakes for most companies, regardless of industry. Whether it’s minimizing the number of clicks to reach a result, removing a task or transforming any mundane element of the customer’s interactions with a brand, the more companies look for ways to be invisible, the more they’re standing out.

Related Article: For a Better User Experience, Forget Alexa, Use Occam's Razor

Less Is Always More — From Taxis to Burritos

In many cases, streamlining interactions is as simple as eliminating one big step (or many little ones) in a mainstream process. Take Uber or Lyft. The magic isn’t only in on-demand rides or cheaper fares, it’s in what the experience doesn’t involve: the need to physically hail a cab or make a phone call and wait for a ride that may or may not arrive, the need to carry cash. Eliminating those experiences altogether adds value to consumers’ lives in a way that is so seamless, it’s unnoticed — until they find themselves in situations where they have no choice but to take a cab.

The same goes for keyless ignition systems and cordless headphones. Removing a few steps that no one misses after they are gone (hailing cabs, inserting keys or plugging things in), streamlines an experience and results in widespread user adoption.

And of course that phenomenon is hardly limited to technology.

In the restaurant business, Chipotle is an icon of simplified design. From its founding, the burrito chain has focused on providing customers with an easy and efficient experience. In contrast to many of its fast food competitors (or restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, whose menu is basically a novella), Chipotle limits customer options with a very basic menu. (Those in California might argue that In-N-Out Burger did the same thing.) By deciding not to offer an overabundance of options — and delivering on the options available in an on-demand manner — Chipotle started a new trend in the restaurant business: “fast casual“ eateries featuring good food and efficient service. Others in the fast casual market now include Sweetgreen, CAVA and Shake Shack.

Pushing back on what we accept as the norm — whether it’s taxis or fast food — can revolutionize mundane parts of our everyday lives.

Related Article: How Design Thinking Can Help Improve Your Organization's Customer Experience

Making Experiences Personal Again

If peeling back options isn’t a possibility, businesses can find a way to make subtle changes to make their offerings more appealing to customers.

Netflix is one example. Sure, the company originally made headlines for delivering DVDs to your home and removing the schlep to Blockbuster, but more recently, it has used machine learning to perfect the process of making recommendations — relieving customers of the need to look through its library to find something good to watch. (And now the company is even developing new series based on ratings and other data that provide a deep understanding of its audience.)

Netflix has also become well known for “impressive and kind of scary” tricks that suck us into hours of watching without realizing it. Whether it’s the use of customized images that reflect viewers’ genre preferences, or algorithms that customize rows of options, or episodes programmed to autostart when the previous episode finishes (thus increasing the odds that viewers lock into unintentional binges), Netflix has become a master of the art of removing subtle steps in the process of choosing and watching programs — steps that are part of the process of watching content from competitors like Comcast, Starz and AOL that we never even noticed in the first place.

In the retail business, Amazon is evolving its model to find new ways to increase customer touchpoints and continually streamline the purchasing process. From enabling shoppers to order products with their voices, a well-located button or the introduction of “one-click purchasing” (the bane of many late-night shoppers), Amazon has changed what “on-demand” means for consumers today.

Related Article: Get to Know Your Shoppers the Way Netflix Knows Its Viewers

Start Simplifying Your Customer's Experiences

All of the above isn’t about unending amounts of “creative brainstorming.” The best ideas actually come from the other side of the brain — the side associated with the scientific method. Design thinking, practical empathy, biomimicry, lean startup, service design or tried-and-true user testing are just a few extremely well-documented innovation methods that anyone can leverage. They often end with layers being peeled away from an experience because they focus on unmet customer needs as opposed to technology or what the competition is doing. Prioritizing the utility of what the experience enables the customer to do provides value over innovation for innovation’s sake.

Companies can evolve by simply looking inward at their approach to solving problems for their customers. Simple, customer-centric innovation can’t come from one department or “design team” alone. It needs to involve an altered way of thinking, operating and collaborating — like Airbnb's cross-functional teams or Zappos’ requirement that all new hires (even executives) answer phones. Building a company culture around problem-solving and customer empathy yields more sustainable, experience-driven results.

It’s not just about just building a better experience, it’s building one that people will actually use. As Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker wisely observed in her most recent internet trends report: The speed of technological disruption is accelerating. It took about 80 years for Americans to adopt the dishwasher. The consumer internet became commonplace in less than a decade.

We’re at a point of inflection where, as consumers, we are more ready to embrace strange new technologies. It’s why a company like Instagram has grown to 800 million active monthly users in just two years, largely for removing text and putting more focus on sharing photos in an easier way than predecessors offered (and why competitor Vero grew by 500,000 users in just 24 hours). Innovations that even subtly change tiny parts our lives for the better have the potential to spread like wildfire.

The lasting difference between a good idea (MySpace, AOL) and a world-changing innovation (Facebook, Google) is the customer experience. The time to simplify experiences is now — it’s really just about knowing where to look.