business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

The value of simplicity has been extolled through the centuries by Shakespeare, Da Vinci and even weapons designers for the US military. (In fact, the acronym KISS or "Keep it simple, stupid," comes from the military.)

Now as companies look for myriad ways to delight shoppers and somehow gain (or keep) competitive advantage, it pays to take a trip into the very recent past for a lesson in the power of simplicity.

For starters, look no further than the palm of your hand, which right now is probably filled with the latest iPhone or Android device that has seemingly overnight become the most indispensable tool we have ever possessed. (Trust me, I am no different.)

Hard as it may be to believe, but only 20 years ago there was a completely different devices that filled many palms and it didn’t come from Apple or Samsung. Rather it was the Palm Pilot, the one-time giant of personal digital assistants (PDAs, remember). And in many ways that now near-extinct device may perfectly exemplify how simplicity can produce greater happiness in its users than far more sophisticated and capable devices.

Fast Company recently ran a tribute to the Palm Pilot that is worth reading, especially as we increasingly look for ways to use technology to enhance the customer experience. The lesson from the Palm Pilot is that customers are happiest when problems are being solved and their lives made simpler in the process.

The Palm Pilot at its simplest allowed users to carry their calendars and address books in a simple, but elegant device that easily fit into pockets (one of the key goals of the Palm was that final point.) It certainly didn’t offer the countless applications that come with our smart phones, but then again we need to ask ourselves how much happier we are by having a constant tether to our phones, e-mail, texts, social media and more.

The essence of the Fast Company article is about designing products and customer solutions that people love.

Now obviously, there’s no easy parallel here to the modern store … except that there is.

In attempting to wow customers stores frequently look for ways to add products, services, technology and more. But given the complexity of their lives, less can frequently be more. Consider Trader Joe’s, one of the most beloved retailers out there currently. TJ’s assortment is a fraction of most other stores and shoppers love that. It demonstrates that having 30 choices of spicy mustard isn’t always viewed as a positive. Sure you may get the perfect mustard, but is the upside really worth the journey?

For some, yes. For many, no.

Likewise, consider the success that McDonald’s and other fast food operators have had by essentially streamlining customer decisions into meal packages. No need to think about whether you want fries and a drink, just ask for the number 1, 2 or whatever.

And there are countless other examples of simplicity becoming competitive advantage.

You may not be designing a breakthrough technology that will rival the iPhone or even the Palm Pilot, but Fast Company argues that you need to think about simplification - and how to meet basic consumer needs rather than dazzle and possibly overwhelm with options, choices and more.

Seal that relationship with a KISS. It may work out better that way.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.

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