Editor's take: As someone who spends his life reading, writing, and talking about technology products, industry trends, and tech companies, I’ve endured my fair share of product user interfaces, marketing messages, and company strategies that are—how can I say this politely—stupendously bad.
Early on, some of this could be at least partially explained by the relative immaturity of the industry, the “newness” of the technology and/or the fact that certain products or solutions were specifically targeted toward a very small, technically 'sophisticated' audience.
But those days are long gone. Now, with technology products and companies getting further embedded into the general population and the overall economy, there’s simply no excuse for the ongoing confusion and lack of clarity around critical technology products and trends that we’re all forced to endure.
I certainly understand that things like cloud computing and all its variants, 5G, and other wireless technologies, smart home-focused developments, digital security, artificial intelligence and machine learning, among many others, are complex and can be difficult to explain (let alone use!). In addition, it’s certainly fair to argue that most people don’t care about the details of how these technologies work. But when a significant portion of people—even those who work in the tech industry—can’t even partially explain what they are, well, that seems like a big problem.
Like many others, throughout the years as I’ve seen or heard these types of marketing messages, used the products, or tried to decipher the strategies, I have often blamed myself when I didn’t really understand what was being said or how something functioned. I figured it was just too complex or challenging a subject to easily understand.
Technology products and services, and the trends that drive them, are simply far too important to our society for them to remain shrouded in mystery.
At this point, however, I realize the problem isn’t with me—it’s with the people who created the message or designed the product or came up with the strategy. Yes, it can be incredibly hard to do, but people who make the extra effort to explain difficult concepts in meaningful ways—like great teachers—can make an extraordinary impact. In fact, I’d argue that they can make an essential difference. People who don’t put in the necessary effort, however, are not only breeding confusion, they are actually contributing to what could prove to be even bigger problems.
Technology products and services, and the trends that drive them, are simply far too important to our society for them to remain shrouded in mystery. Sure, I might not ever fully understand all the details of how a technology works, but if you’re not able to explain—in layman’s terms—the basic principles of what something is, what it does, and why I should care, then you need to go back to the drawing board. To put it bluntly, falling back on complexity is a lazy excuse. As more and more aspects of our lives, both personal and professional, are digitized, it’s not just modestly useful to be able to clarify important tech concepts, it’s absolutely necessary.
A big part of the problem is that most people leave out the context for how a strategy or technology trend, or even a specific product, fits in with other ones. I find that making analogies to better-known concepts or ideas can make a huge difference here, but it takes creative thinking to come up with comparisons that are meaningful.
Even an example that isn’t a perfect match for how something works can still be incredibly useful if it gets the basic gist of an idea across in an easier and simpler way. Too often, people get caught up in the minutiae of technical exactness and, in the process, lose the opportunity to explain a basic, core principle. Also, bear in mind that context setting may only take a sentence or two to explain—but it can make all the difference. Think of it like knowing where a journey starts and ends and not just a detailed description of everything in between.
It’s much worse to presume that people know too much, than that they know too little. Plus, even experts in a field will appreciate a good analogy or clever context setting that helps to better explain concepts they live and breathe every day.
In addition, the number of assumptions and presumptions that get made about what people believe others already know (or should) leads to huge information gaps and misunderstandings as well. While I certainly understand why people want to avoid trying to insult the intelligence of their potential audience, experience has shown me time and time again that the idea of oversimplification is a false narrative. Even among what might seem to be a technically sophisticated audience, the amount of confusion or lack of knowledge that exists on what some believe to be relatively straightforward topics is much higher than most recognize.
Bottom line? It’s much worse to presume that people know too much, than that they know too little. Plus, even experts in a field will appreciate a good analogy or clever context setting that helps to better explain concepts they live and breathe every day.
Similarly, while I fully admit to being someone who actually likes to read owner’s manuals, the operation of most devices and applications shouldn’t require one. If people can’t even get started with a gadget, program, or service without a manual, it’s clearly time to start over again. Yes, good user interface design is incredibly challenging—it’s clearly as much art as science, if not more—but it’s also tremendously important. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, there continues to be significantly more focus placed on functionality than ease of operation these days. As tech devices and services get further ingrained into our increasingly digital lives, this de-emphasis on simplicity has already started to create gaps between people—notably between those who understand and those who don’t—and as time goes on, the problem is likely to get much worse.
There has never been a product that is too easy to use or an explanation that is too easy to understand.
These principles go beyond individual products and applications as well. In fact, you could probably make an argument that the ease-of-use for individual products and services has actually been improving.
The big problem is that we’re all using a lot more of them and in a lot more combinations. In the gaps between all of these products is where the biggest potential issues exist. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to address these concerns—though better interoperability standards for both hardware and software can clearly help—but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be receiving a great deal of attention.
Planning, building, and marketing tech-related products and services is an incredibly important, but also very challenging task. The topics and concepts they involve can indeed be exceedingly complex. But the goals of simplifying both how things work and how to explain them continue to be incredibly important ones that product designers, strategists, and marketers need to keep at the forefront of their minds.
Remember this: there has never been a product that is too easy to use or an explanation that is too easy to understand.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.