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Simple: Less Is More

We became skeptical of legislating simplicity. All too often, government bureaucrats want to establish readability formulas as the standard of comprehension or use all uppercase, bold type as a means of emphasis. In our risk-averse society, this had shifted the focus from true communication and consumer understanding to one of compliance with the law while failing to achieve its spirit.

We realized that going back to a blank slate is critical. Throw out unenforceable provisions, question outdated business practices, challenge inertia.

We discovered that the principles of simplicity apply to every interaction, whether printed, electronic, verbal, or visual. It doesn’t matter whether it is a contract, an instruction, a touchscreen, or a phone tree. Products of all types—appliances, vehicles, medicines, foods—and services whether provided by a hotel, a hospital, or an online retailer can benefit from simplicity.

We found that simplification provides significant business benefits in the form of cost savings, better client retention, enhanced employee efficiency, and competitive advantage for first movers.

We think of simplicity as the essence of the golden rule. Everyone wants to understand what is being offered or expected of them, and simplicity helps make that clear. It shortens the distance between people. It indicates that we’ve taken the time to move the complexity of something out of the way so that the recipient of an object, a deed, a gesture, or a letter understands what we mean.

illustration of man emptying bucket over hill

Illustration by Serge Bloch

Companies that simplify their products, services, and communications are able to improve their relationship with customers. They usually are more productive—because when you make things simple and clear for customers, you spend less time having to answer their questions on customer service lines. Streamlining operations cuts costs and brings more focus to the company and its mission. And it also invariably provides a better overall experience for the consumer.

But simplicity is not just a business issue—it’s an everyday life issue, among people struggling to deal with government bureaucracy, confusion in the medical realm, indecipherable bills and applications, shady contracts, feature-laden products. The human toll caused by these problems begins at birth and runs the gamut from college students drowning in loan agreements to senior citizens unable to access their Medicare benefits.

To be sure, it is easier to ignore or tolerate complexity than to battle it—but only at first. Gradually, this “easier” path we’ve chosen grows so cluttered with complication that it becomes difficult to move ahead, and eventually, the path is gone—completely overgrown.

To some extent, we may even be inclined to put our trust in complexity, developing a sort of “master” complex. The New York Times journalist David Segal observed that when we encounter “ideas and objects that are hard to understand,” we are likely to assume that these complicated offers are the product of “sharp impressive minds.” Don’t bet on it. A sharp mind could have articulated the offer in an accessible manner. Complexity is a failing, unless it was intentional—in which case you’d really better watch your step.

Some companies willfully create complexity. The disturbing truth is that banks, credit card companies, insurers, and other types of businesses find ways to make money from the fine print nobody can read or understand. They use the confusion to slip in terms and conditions that they’d rather you didn’t notice.

To avoid lawsuits or other potential problems, lawyers have inundated us with mind-numbing disclaimers, disclosures, terms, instructions, amendments, and amendments to amendments. The basic thinking here is that to be safe, one must address every possibility, no matter how remote. Insurance industry consumer advocate and professor of law Daniel Schwarcz cites the “particular culture of conservativism, lack of change, and protection of information” that goes into contract writing. When battling against insurance companies for transparency and reform, he says, “You hear a lot of claims like, ‘All that’s going to do is promote litigation—more class action and nonmeritorious suits’… without too much thought about in which cases that might actually be [true].”

“Complexity creeps up on you,” observes Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies illustrates that complexity may have been the ultimate downfall of the historic enlightened cultures. A major reason for the constant buildup is that no one seems to want to take the trouble to gut the system and start fresh. Companies and governments find it easier to just keep amending and adding on, sometimes to laws or policies that are irrelevant or of unknown derivation.

Consider the U.S. tax code, for example. It has nearly tripled in volume during the last decade, from 1.4 million words to 3.8 million, according to the national taxpayer advocate and ombudsman for the IRS Nina E. Olson, who estimates that Americans spend 6.1 billion hours preparing returns (the equivalent of three million employees, working full-time). And on top of that, complexity causes accidental underpayments and encourages cheating — more than a trillion dollars in write-offs, loopholes, and deductions.

From jury instructions to instruction manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of overexplaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: Too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.

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