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Google's secret weapon: simplicity

By Linda Tischler, FastCompany
December 14, 2005 12:49 IST
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I'm snuggled under the covers with Jon Stewart and the remote. The 'Evolution/Schmevolution' skit is funny, but it's been a long day, and I'm fading fast. The promise of technology is that I'm one click away from slumberland.

I hit the power button. The picture disappears, but the TV is still glowing a creepy blue that will haunt my dreams if I don't make it go away. I try the TV button. Nothing. The cable button. Nothing. What the %$*&?? I kick off the blankets and trudge over to turn off the miserable box at the source.

I can't help but wonder, as I lie there, now wide awake, how it is that all the things that were supposed to make our lives so easy instead made them more complex. Why is so much technology still so hard?

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It is innovation's biggest paradox: We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives--more features, more function, more power--and yet we also increasingly demand that it be easy to use. And, in an Escher-like twist, the technology that's simplest to use is also, often, the most difficult to create.

Marissa Mayer lives with that conundrum every day. As Google's director of consumer Web products, she's responsible for the search site's look and feel.

Mayer is a tall, blond 30-year-old with two Stanford degrees in computer science and an infectious laugh. She's also Google's high priestess of simplicity, defending the home page against all who would clutter it up. "I'm the gatekeeper," she says cheerfully. "I have to say no to a lot of people."

The technology that powers Google's search engine is, of course, anything but simple. In a fraction of a second, the software solves an equation of more than 500 million variables to rank 8 billion Web pages by importance.

But the actual experience of those fancy algorithms is something that would satisfy a Shaker: a clean, white home page, typically featuring no more than 30 lean words; a cheery, six-character, primary-colored logo; and a capacious search box. It couldn't be friendlier or easier to use.

Here is how Mayer thinks about the tension between complexity of function and simplicity of design: "Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It's simple, it's elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it's got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open -- and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful."

It would be lovely if Google's corporate mythology included an enchanting tale to account for the birth of this pristine marvel. But the original home-page design was dumb luck. In 1998, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were consumed with writing code for their engine.

Brin just wanted to hack together something to send queries to the back end, where the cool technology resided. Google didn't have a Web master, and Brin didn't do HTML. So he designed as little as he could get away with.

The accident became an icon, of course, and a key reason the company enjoys a commanding lead. Google's design has been mimicked on the search pages of MSN and Yahoo, whose portals are messy throwbacks to the "everything but the kitchen sink" school of Web design. But they're poor imitations; according to Hitwise, Google controls 59.2% of the search market, up from 45% a year ago; MSN's share is down to 5.5% and Yahoo's is 28.8%.

No surprise that a site easy enough for a technophobe to use has caught the public imagination. Like desperate Gullivers, we're pinned down by too much information and too much stuff. By one estimate, the world produced five exabytes (one quintillion bytes) of content in 2002--the same amount churned out between 25,000 b.c. and a.d. 2000.

Little wonder that Real Simple has been the most successful magazine launch in a decade, and the blogosphere is abuzz over the season's hottest tech innovation--the Hipster PDA: 15 index cards held together by a binder clip.

With Google's extraordinary trajectory and the stratospheric success of Apple's iPod--itself a marvel of simplicity and, with 20 million units sold, a staggering hit--we seem to be nearing a seminal moment. Whereas endless Sunday Styles stories may have failed to get its attention, the tech industry's interest is invariably galvanized by cash. If the equation T (technology) + E (ease of use) = $ can be proven, the time may be right for the voice of the

technologically challenged who can't operate their remotes to be heard.

In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies. "Engineers say, 'Do you know how much complexity we've managed to build in here?' But consumers say, 'I don't care. It's just supposed to work!' " says Daryl Plummer, group vice president at Gartner Group.

It's often that tension--between the desire to cram in cool new features and the desire to make a product easy to use--that makes delivering on the simplicity promise so hard, particularly in companies where engineers hold sway. At Google, it's an ongoing battle. As developers come up with ever sexier services--maps! news alerts! scholarly papers!--the pressure to lard on links is fierce. Mayer holds them at bay with a smile and strict standards.

To make it to the home page, a new service needs to be so compelling that it will garner millions of page views per day. Contenders audition on the advanced-search page; if they prove their mettle--as image search did, growing from 700,000 page views daily to 2 million in two weeks--they may earn a permanent link. Few make the cut, and that's fine. Google's research shows that users remember just 7 to 10 services on rival sites. So Google offers a miserly six services on its home page. By contrast, MSN promotes more than 50, and Yahoo, over 60. And both sell advertising off their home pages; Google's is a commercial-free zone.

So why don't those sites simply hit the delete button and make their home pages more Googlesque? Hewing to the simplicity principle, it turns out, is tougher than connecting with tech support, particularly if you try it retrospectively. "Once you have a home page like our competitors'," Mayer says, "paring it back to look like Google's is impossible. You have too many stakeholders who feel they should be promoted on the home page." (MSN says more than half its customers are happy with its home page--but it's experimenting with a sleeker version called "")

Google understands that simplicity is both sacred and central to its competitive advantage. Mayer is a specialist in artificial intelligence, not design, but she hits on the secret to her home page's success: "It gives you what you want, when you want it, rather than everything you could ever want, even when you don't."

That, says Joe Duffy, founder of the award-winning Minneapolis design firm Duffy & Partners and author of Brand Apart, is a pretty good definition of good design. He quotes a famous line from the eminent designer Milton Glaser: "Less isn't more; just enough is more." Just enough, says Duffy, contains an aesthetic component that differentiates one experience from another.

It's just that holding the line on what constitutes "just enough" is harder than it looks.

It's early September, and the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, are teeming with young technorati in flip-flops and shorts. But there is calm at the MIT Media Lab, just upstairs from the List Visual Arts Center, the university's preeminent gallery. It's a fitting juxtaposition, a place where art and technology seek common ground.

"I want to figure out how you could combine simplicity, which is basic human life, with this thing--technology--that's out of control."

John Maeda runs the Media Lab's Simplicity Consortium. His goal is to find ways to break free from the intimidating complexity of today's technology and the frustration of information overload. He is a gentle, soft-spoken man, dressed elegantly in a crisp, white collarless shirt and black pants. And he is an unusual amalgam: having the mathematical wizardry of a computer geek with the soul of an artist. Indeed, in 1990, he left MIT for four years to study art. "My whole life changed," he says. "I thought, This is a great way to live." But rather than throwing over his digital life entirely, he conceived a mission. "I came back to MIT to figure out how you could combine simplicity, which is basic human life, with this thing--technology--that's out of control."

Maeda's ability to toggle back and forth between right brain and left affords him unusual insight into how we got stuck in this technological quagmire. On one level, he says, the problem is simply one of scale.

Before computer technology, small things were simple; big things were more likely complex. But the microchip changed that. Now small things can be complex, too. But small objects have less room for instruction--so we get cell phones with tip calculators buried deep in submenus and user manuals the size of the Oxford English Dictionary to help us figure it all out.

Blame the closed feedback loop among engineers and industrial designers, who simply can't conceive of someone so lame that she can't figure out how to download a ringtone; blame a competitive landscape in which piling on new features is the easiest way to differentiate products, even if it makes them harder to use; blame marketers who haven't figured out a way to make "ease of use" sound hip.

"It's easier," says Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, "to market technology than ease of use."

Across the river from MIT, in the Boston suburb of West Newton, Aaron Oppenheimer runs the product behavior group of Design Continuum, one of the country's preeminent design firms. He is the sympathetic counselor who gently points out that for each feature clients want to include -- "Hey, if we've got a microprocessor in there, let's add an alarm clock!" -- they're trading off a degree of ease of use. It's a never-ending battle.

"I spend a lot of time talking clients out of adding features," he says with a sigh. "Every new feature makes things more complicated , even if you never use them."

In the past, he says, adding features usually meant adding costs. Put a sound system or power windows into a car, and you've upped the price, so you better make sure consumers really want what you're peddling. But in the digital world, that cost-benefit calculus has gone awry.

"The incremental cost to add 10 features instead of one feature is just nothing," says Oppenheimer. "Technology is this huge blessing because we can do anything with it, and this huge curse because we can do anything with it."

"The market for simplicity is complex. If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

But the issue is also our conflicted relationship with technology. We want the veneer of simplicity but with all the bells and whistles modern technology can provide. "The market for simplicity is complex," says Dan Ariely, a business-school professor who is spending a year off from MIT figuring out how to quantify the value of simplicity at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

We also want our devices to talk to each other--cell phone to the Web, digital camera to printer. That requires a level of interoperability that would be difficult to attain in a perfect world, but is well nigh impossible in one where incompatibility is a competitive strategy. "In business, it's all about war," says Maeda.

"I hate to sound like a hippie, but if there were just some sense of peace and love, products would be much better."

In his quiet way, Maeda hopes to right the balance between man and machine. He and his students are working on software, code-named OPENSTUDIO, that would create an "ecosystem of design"--connecting designers with customers on a broad scale.

That could lead to bespoke products--a cell phone, for example, with 30 features for Junior, 3 for Gran. "You can't make the world simpler unless you can get in touch with design," he says, "and the only way you can do that is to get in touch with designers."

So do you make your company's products simpler? Read on. . .

Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer. Jennifer Reingold contributed to this story.

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Linda Tischler, FastCompany