Why simple is better: people need to know what they are buying

In 2010, a multi-featured location-based app called Burbn pivoted and became a simple photo-sharing app called Instagram. Less than 2 years later, Instagram sold to Facebook for 1 billion dollars, and may be worth as much as 35 billion dollars today. Many people hailed as victory for the lean startup method1 of product development, where launching quickly, learning, and iterating is said to be the key to startup success. And those people were right! The Burbn founders launched (although not quickly), observed via analytics that the photo-sharing features were the most popular, and doubled down by iterating into an app (Instagram) that contained ONLY photo sharing and commenting. Classic lean startup story.

However, there’s another equally important takeaway from the Instagram story: Burbn had every single bit of functionality that Instagram has and more, and yet Instagram is the better product. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but the idea that a product with less functionality is actually the better product is not a popular idea outside of experienced product designers.

It is, however, the correct idea. When it comes to launching a new consumer product, a simpler product is always better. This explains why so many great companies start off with products that are actually simpler than their competitors, only to expand their product lines and feature sets massively as they grow. I would go so far as to say that a simple product is the ONLY type of new consumer product that can consistently succeed because people need to know what they are buying or they can not and will not buy¹.

Nearly everything modern consumers buy or spend their time on is discretionary. We have no intrinsic need to have iPhones, buy another shirt, or find yet another blog to read or tv show to watch. As a result, most new products aren’t competing against similar products; they’re competing against consumers not giving a shit. This is exactly why it is so important to make something a few people love rather than something everyone will like. The first step towards making something people love is to make something people UNDERSTAND. Or, put another way, “make something a few people deeply understand rather than something everyone will understand a little bit”.

Every noteworthy consumer product I can think of has benefited from launching with an incredibly simple product3. Google is perhaps the best example. Look at the Google home page in 1998 vs the Yahoo homepage in 1998. Google is one thing: a search engine. Yahoo is….. I don’t even know, but it has a LOT of things . There were more than 20 search engines at the time, and Google’s value proposition was that their search engine was just better. The first step to capitalizing on this advantage was to get users to experience the quality of their searches in isolation.

Google’s home page was clear: this is where you come to find what you’re looking for, and for the first time people actually did. The quality of the results reinforced the idea that Google was entirely about “search that actually works”. It wasn’t long before the verb “search” was replaced in the modern lexicon with “Google”. However, if Google had started with the best search engine in the world AND every single one of the services Yahoo offered, even if they were just as good as Yahoo’s, people would not have known how to effectively use or judge Google. They would have said “this is just like Yahoo”, and abandoned the site either without trying it or after trying it and being able to clearly experience the brilliant search functionality4.

This principle becomes less acute as companies mature and develop brands and network effects. Brand can be so powerful that it supplants even the value proposition of the product. That’s why Everlane’s homepage today is 100% about the brand, it’s what powers the business now. Network effects are an even more powerful mechanism mature companies use as they expand their product lines. Google Apps is a great example. Google Drive is a demonstrably inferior product than Box or Dropbox, however, the fact that it ships with Google Apps for every corporate Gmail account has made many companies (mine] included) choose it for cloud storage. Brand, network effects, lock in, referrals, and other factors make it so mature products can add significant complexity to their offerings5 without killing the consumer’s ability to buy them.

Focus is extremely difficult when building a consumer product. You will get so many different opinions and disparate feedback that it can feel impossible to distill it all into something that will satisfy everyone. So don’t! If you’re going to succeed you’re going to need to decide to do something simple that will really connect with a few people. This is partly because your time is limited and you need to build and learn quickly, but more importantly it is because focus will help you build a better product. You may not please everybody, but at least you’ll have a chance to please somebody. Pleasing one person is a strong start, so give yourself a chance and give the people something they can actually buy6.

Discuss on HN or let me know what you think on Twitter

Footnotes #

  1. This is a process by which developers launch products quickly, learn from how people use their services, and then make either subtle or radical changes to their products based on the feedback.

  2. I’m using the word “buy” to mean an individual choosing to use, purchase, or otherwise engage with your product in the the developer of the product desires. This does not include companies purchasing enterprise software, which I believe to be very different.

  3. The top marketplaces (Uber = press button, get a car, Airbnb = rent other people’s homes), social networks (Facebook browse profiles of your friends, Twitter = send messages from your cell phone), and even e-commerce businesses (Everlane = clothes like they sell at the Gap but cheaper because it’s online) all come to mind as starting with incredibly simple user interfaces and product lines.

  4. This is actually still the case for the two companies. [Google.com](https://google.com] still starts out as a blank screen with a search bar and I still don’t know what Yahoo is or how to judge Yahoo. I like Yahoo Sports and Fantasy Football, does that mean I like Yahoo? Not really right? Huge issue.

  5. Not that they SHOULD, and if they do they had damn well better make sure they remain intuitive.

  6. This actually applies really well to dating profiles, which was actually the inspiration for this essay.

    Most dating profiles either long, boring descriptions of what the person imagines makes them interesting or lists of things they like. The thing is, what makes somebody interesting can’t really be described except by truly exceptional writers, and long lists of things leaves the reader with nothing to focus on to motivate them to start a conversation. However, one fact or joke, ideally 6-10 words, gives the reader something specific to judge and respond to. Conversation is the goal, and good conversation starts with something to focus on. That’s why “how’s it going” is an especially bad conversation starter.


Now read this

Odd bedfellows: the strange history of VISA and bitcoin

When the founder of VISA Dee Hock joined the advisory board of Bitcoin startup Xapo, it seemed pretty strange to me. After all, Bitcoin’s very existence appears to be a reaction to VISA’s shortcomings. VISA represents everything bitcoin... Continue →