Co.Design

How To Improve Any Service By Simplifying It

In their new book, Simple, Siegel + Gale’s Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn argue that simplicity is the new luxury.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple… that’s creativity."
—Charles Mingus

It may seem counterintuitive, but in a business environment that usually hypes "more, more, more," people increasingly are opting for less. They’re responding to products with simpler features, and food with fewer ingredients. The ice cream maker Häagen-Dazs first observed this trend a few years ago when, as brand manager Ching-Yee Hu told USA Today, it began encountering focus group consumers who expressed a clear preference for food products with fewer ingredients. All of which made Hu wonder, "Why can’t we bring ice cream down to the bare minimum?" What resulted was a new ice cream line called Five for its five ingredients—milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and vanilla bean. It was an immediate hit with consumers.

Of course, people respond to the idea of a few ingredients because they assume that those five won’t be dehydrated potato flakes, monosodium glutamate, whey solids, artificial coloring, and artificial flavoring. We can easily foresee a good idea (few ingredients) mutating when tainted by greed. Just as companies use simplicity as a come-on when the reality is much different, "few" ingredients shouldn’t be hyped inappropriately when "few" doesn’t deliver on purity and freshness.

It’s not just consumer purchases, either; people not only want but desperately need simplicity in their medical services. And at the same time, they want and deserve it from their government, too. Add it all up, and what you have is a wealth of possibilities for simplicity innovators like Josh Reich and others. Across a broad range of industries, encompassing all sorts of products and services, there is a growing need to rethink and reinvent by way of simplification.

This is the positive flip side of the worrisome crisis of complexity: Within that crisis lies massive opportunity. In business, government, and health care, mounting complexity has erected barriers that make it harder for customers, patients, and citizens to get what they need. Simplicity can be the key to removing those barriers, which is not to suggest it’s an easy fix.

Actually, what’s required is not only creativity but also an opportunistic mindset, a sensitivity to what people actually need (as opposed to what they’re currently getting), and a willingness to cast off business-as-usual practices and approaches. We use the term "breakthrough simplicity" to describe an approach to innovation that is rooted in finding new ways to make everything simpler. It’s a way of thinking that enables you to envision and pursue a wide range of possibilities that can lead to major breakthroughs.

This puts a fresh spin on "innovation"—that much-used, oft-misunderstood buzzword. There’s a tendency to think of innovation as coming up with the latest gadget or adding new features onto existing ones. But the concept of breakthrough simplicity recognizes that today, the most powerful innovations don’t manifest themselves as new bells and whistles. They take the form of better customer experiences (or patient experiences, or citizen experiences). And one of the best ways to improve any experience is to simplify it—to remove complications, unnecessary layers, hassles, or distractions, while focusing on the essence of what people want and need in that particular situation.

Breaking new ground via simplicity isn’t so simple, of course. Part of what makes it hard is that within almost any industry or product category, complexity builds over time—and gradually comes to be accepted as an unavoidable part of doing business in that sector. It takes a maverick to come along and say, "Maybe things really don’t have to be so complicated." This was the case with Southwest Airlines. Four decades ago, Southwest was looking for an opening in the airline business, which was crowded, chaotic, and complex even back then. At the time Southwest was first taking wing, it was assumed that running an airline meant dealing with all manner of cost inefficiencies and inherent complexities, from maintaining a large and diverse fleet of planes to the logistics of serving dinner to each passenger. It seemed there was just no way around these everyday hassles of running an airline—until Southwest proved otherwise.

Instead of having its fleet stocked with various types of planes, Southwest opted for a one-plane-fits-all approach by flying only Boeing 737s. And while other airlines had grown used to a multistop hub-and-spoke system to get passengers to their destinations, Southwest made the bold decision to focus on direct nonstop flights. On those flights, they would serve snacks rather than full meals. This streamlining of the business model created tremendous efficiencies for Southwest, saving money on plane maintenance, food, and cleaning costs, while also ensuring that its planes spent more time aloft and less on the ground. As Portfolio.com noted, the airline "keeps things simple and consistent, which drives costs down" and "maximizes productive assets."

Of course, all that streamlining could have diminished the customer experience, but Southwest turned it into a positive by focusing on simple, basic benefits that mattered a lot to its customers. It used the cost savings to offer lower fares; it nixed the annoying hidden fees and surcharges that other airlines levy on customers; it doesn’t charge for baggage; it has fewer flight delays than other airlines, in part because of its point-to-point flying system.

And while it cut back on food, Southwest amped up the in-flight experience by encouraging pilots and attendants to banter and joke with passengers—which they have become known for doing with gusto. The overall business results are well documented: Southwest has been one of the few consistently profitable airlines over the past three decades.

But the larger point proved by Southwest is that no industry or category of business, regardless of how inherently complex it may be, is beyond simplification. In fact, the more complex an industry is, and the more complicated a particular product or service within that industry may be, the more opportunities there are for simplification—and the more it will tend to be valued and appreciated by customers.

Simplicity as a luxury

Offering simplicity within a complex domain is likely to be so appreciated and valued by customers that it ends up being perceived as a luxury. That may surprise some marketers who make the common mistake of thinking that in order to position a brand as a "luxury" alternative, you must provide customers with more features, perks, and options; luxury, in this context, is equated with "excess." But we’ve found that consumers of luxury goods have even less time and desire than most to wade through choices. One way to carve out a luxury niche is by simplifying—by making it easier for customers to use a product or service without having to waste time thinking about it or sorting through too many options. The key, however, is to make the right high-quality choices for these customers—and then make sure they understand that what you’re providing is a simple solution that has considered their needs, made the right choices for them, and eliminated headaches and potential problems.

We learned this lesson early on in one of our first experiences working in the insurance industry. One doesn’t often think of insurance as a glamorous, luxurious business. But the creation of a unique insurance policy called Masterpiece, which we helped design for Chubb Insurance, was a simplicity breakthrough within the industry. Chubb already held a prominent place in the commercial insurance market, but in the mid-1980s the company responded to requests from the owners and executives of the businesses it insured by offering personal coverage. These individuals typically were quite affluent and required a mix and match of coverage for valuable articles (such as jewelry and art collections), watercraft (yachts), homes (several), and cars (luxury models).

Masterpiece eschewed the typical insurance policy jargon in favor of simple, plain English that a policyholder could read from cover to cover and understand. This meant that they abandoned the ISO industry-standard forms (a path of least resistance for many insurers since by using the standard they know that they are in compliance with state regulations even if those regulations aren’t particularly comprehensible for policyholders). They did this to better reflect how they actually conduct their business and handle claims.

Masterpiece was also a fully customizable policy. The possible combinations of coverage were numerous, yet a library of modular text read seamlessly when printed as a continuous flow. The beauty of the policy stemmed from the fact that clarity and transparency are the bedrock of the Chubb brand. Chubb takes the approach of telling policyholders what is excluded, and if something is not specifically excluded, it is covered. By sending an appraiser to every home to set the replacement cost value before insuring it and giving the actual replacement cost if they estimate incorrectly, the effect is a "hassle-free" claims experience.'

Having a Masterpiece policy has become a status symbol. Sixty percent of the Forbes 400 wealthiest people in the United States and half of Fortune 500 CEOs have Chubb personal insurance.

The policy was not only simple for the customer to read, but it was also designed to be easier and faster for Chubb to underwrite and approve. This meant that 95 percent of policies and 97 percent of endorsements could be out the door within seven days, in an industry that typically measures turnaround in weeks. That put more money in Chubb’s pocket, because insurance companies that turn around policies faster can nab more customers; it’s an early-bird-gets-the-worm business. And at the same time, Chubb could command a higher "luxury" premium on the policy, which people would pay because there was no guesswork about coverage and no hassles when a claim was filed.

Customizing content, as Chubb did with Masterpiece, is a form of simplicity because it involves winnowing information and increasing relevancy. By doing so, a company can save customers time and build their trust. Even the largest company can achieve the illusion that it is speaking to you and only you. Why don’t more companies take this approach? Why don’t they take the time and effort to customize and simplify their offerings?

One reason is that consumers historically have not been vocal about demanding simplicity, which has caused companies to be complacent about it. Companies haven’t invested the time and effort in thinking about simplification, or in reforming entrenched practices that foster complexity. They have underserved their customers in this area, because it seemed they could get away with it.

But that’s changing. Today, it’s clear that most people—more than 80 percent—are looking for ways to simplify their lives. Some of this is undoubtedly a reaction to a world that’s getting more fast-paced, hyperconnected, and overloaded with information, choices, and distractions.

The MS & L Worldwide Global Values Study, conducted by Roper in 2008 with six thousand people worldwide, found that 72 percent of U.S. consumers want companies to be more transparent. The study concluded that transparency in business today "is not an option. It’s a necessity."

The interesting thing is that this craving for simplicity spans demographic groups. One might tend to assume that older consumers would be most resistant to growing complexity—and it’s true, there is a tremendous market opportunity out there in simplifying things for the multitudes of aging baby boomers. But it may surprise some to learn that this issue resonates just as strongly with younger consumers.

According to a recent survey by the research firm Outlaw Consulting, the youngest wave of Generation Y consumers (those aged twenty-one to twenty-seven) responds very positively to brands that communicate with them in a "straightforward and stripped-down way, use plain packaging, and avoid excess," in the words of Outlaw Consulting analyst Holly Brickley. The respondents cited a number of companies as admirable models of simplicity, including Apple, Trader Joe’s, JetBlue, and In-N-Out Burger (known for its limited, no-frills burger menu). One of the qualities these younger respondents associate with simplicity is authenticity—that is, "keeping it simple" is tantamount to "keeping it real."

Many brands these days would kill to be thought of by younger consumers as "real" and "authentic," yet they fail to recognize that simplicity—in their products, packaging, and messaging—is one of the most important ways to convey this quality. That failure is on full display in advertising. An Adweek/Harris Poll noted that three-quarters of Americans have found a commercial on TV confusing. On a more consistent basis, 21 percent often find that commercials lack clarity.

When we talk about breakthrough simplicity, we mean an interaction that cuts through the clutter. This is a standard that should be applied to everything a company puts out into the world, from the product to the ads down to the smallest piece of correspondence: It should do its job quickly, clearly, simply. People just don’t have the time or the interest to wade through corporate rhetoric and jargon to figure out what you’re trying to tell them. Through clarity of thought and presentation, it’s possible for a business to rise above the cacophony of today’s marketplace.

Because simplification can impact business on numerous levels, it is imperative that it be championed from on high. When it is, simplicity encourages honesty, since it’s hard to hoodwink customers if your communications are straightforward and your practices are transparent. It provides efficiencies to businesses that become easier to manage thanks to focused, clear strategies and streamlined approaches. It can also foster an internal corporate clarity—helping people within the company to better understand what they’re trying to achieve and, perhaps, why they got into the business in the first place. And last and foremost—getting back to what matters most in business—simplicity sells.

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Written by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.

Buy Simple for $16 here.

[Images: Vanilla via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • Marc Posch

    This article could be kept simple too. The Mingus quote in the beginning is all that was needed to illustrate the story. Rest is fluff. Still, thanks for reminding about simplicity.

  • Jibberjabber

    nothing new here, I guess people just have a short memory.

    simple solutions have alway been more difficult to create than complex ones.

    simplicity requires knowledge and patience, two key factors missing from many current businesses.

  • reinform

    Co. Design:
    Your online experience is so frustrating with pop-up ads and having to scroll through top images - i hate it!
    I suggest you learn something about simplicity from your OWN articles!

    - Tim Nyberg / Octane Creative
    graphic design and marketing professional