What does it take to make it simple?

“I just need something simple.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that! Don’t worry if you’ve said this to me – it’s not a pet peeve, but it does represent a common misunderstanding that I’m hoping to clear up.

What does simple mean?

Simple means easy, right? As my three-year-old daughter would say, “Yes! No!” Some people mean they don’t want any frills. Maybe they just want a website with three pages, minimal content, and no ongoing marketing strategy. We actually avoid these kinds of projects because they tend to end up as a single use branding project where there is no clear problem to solve, and therefore no clear win for the client when we’re finished.

Others, however, want a user interface that’s intuitive and uncomplicated so they can stand out to their customers. Or they’re tired of trying to manage a complex mess of a website and want something their webmaster can update with ease. In these cases a better word is ‘refined.’ 

The refining process

The refining process itself is fairly simple, though it is arduous: start with everything, then remove anything that isn’t absolutely essential. Rinse. Repeat. When we refine a user interface, branding, or anything else we tend to start with something cluttered and ugly and remove components until it shines. Then we keep going. It might be easiest to explain this with a brief case study from our own branding journey…

How we refined our value proposition

When we decided it was time to grow up as a company we got the core team together at one of the co-founders’ houses and spent hours refining our value proposition. We had already begun two weeks prior by working through the branding questions we ask all our clients. We started our big weekend meeting with two hours of discussion on who we were as a company, the services we were offering, the ones we wanted to add or remove, and who our clients were. Here’s what we had at that point:

We are about rebuilding websites, designing new ones from the ground up, creating compelling designs, and implementing powerful marketing processes.

Meh. This was ok, but was really just a list of services we wanted to focus on with a few adjectives in the mix to make it sound cool. It also had no capacity to scale. Would we have to re-write it every time our list of services changed?

Striking gold? Almost…

Round and round we went until someone said “it’s like we’re trying to perfect their digital presence.” Everyone stopped. We knew we had found something here – perfecting our clients’ digital presence was an excellent summary of all the things from the previous iteration, but without the agony of actually writing/reading them. And it was powerful! Of course, next we were faced with the problem of how to phrase it. We spent another hour or so kicking around ideas and came up with this list:

  • We’re about perfecting your digital presence.
  • Our customers trust us to perfect their digital presence.
  • Let us perfect your digital presence.
  • We exist to perfect your digital presence.
  • We’re ready to perfect your digital presence
  • We’re about to perfect your digital presence

We liked these better than where we were two hours prior, but still weren’t completely in love. Since a large portion of the work on the docket involved re-developing our website and digital sales strategy we decided to press on and come back to this later.

Never. Stop. Refining.

We moved on to tackle other issues, but everyone kept mulling over the value proposition as we worked. Eventually, Jason (our director of marketing) suggested “Driven to Perfect Your Digital Presence.” We liked it, but weren’t immediately in love – something that sometimes happens after you’ve batted around a thousand ideas. We let it sit, and after challenging the value prop from every angle we could think of, decided that this was it.

Refine to simplify

I tell this story to help illustrate how we took something complex and clunky (our list of services), boiled it down to a single idea, then added polish. If you were keeping track, this process started with some exploration two weeks before our big meeting and finished with roughly four to five hours of the core team participating in the final refining process. Overall, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 man-hours!

So, when you’re looking for something simple what do you really mean? Do you really mean basic and inexpensive? Or are you looking for that refined simplicity that let’s your customers fall in love with you?