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Medium's Cofounder On How To Design Simple Solutions For Complex Problems

Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, Medium, and Jelly, on why designing something easy is so exceedingly difficult.

Top Photo: imantsu via Shutterstock. All Others: via Biz Stone/Medium

A couple years ago I went to Best Buy to get a television. I only wanted something flat like they are these days. The salesman convinced me to buy a really expensive "Smart TV." I don’t like this TV for lots of reasons. Chief among them is that it has a camera on top. Yes, my television watches me.

Um, where’s the ON button?

What Can You Take Out?

Keeping things simple is difficult. I like making simple things because I’m frustrated easily by overly complicated products. When I review a product, I think like an editor — what can we take out? Too many options just makes me confused and I’ll just delete it rather than try unless I have to.

The way I center myself with product design is to ask the team, "Given all the various options, what will we ship as the default?" Then, I like to say, "That’s our product." How often do regular people dig around in the settings? People generally just want products that work well.

Letting Go

Keeping things simple means letting go. It means giving up some control to the people who are going to use what you’re building. Build the basics and as people use it, you’ll discover two things. First, you’ll find out where the value is. Second, you’ll find out what’s missing. Then you iterate.

The University of California at Irvine

Larry Wall, who created the programming language Perl, once said, "When they built The University of California at Irvine they just put the buildings in. They did not put any sidewalks; they just planted grass. The next year, they came back and put the sidewalks where the trails were in the grass."

Larry’s point was that Perl wasn’t designed on first principles. Perl was those sidewalks. If you’re a consumer software product designer, this should resonate with you. Watching for patterns in usage will help you make your app better. Thinking you know all up front is just more work.

Practice What You Preach

This is our current approach to Jelly. We have a small closed beta right now and we just recently pulled a bunch of stuff out. It was so refreshing. And now it’s going to be so much simpler for people to get answers to everyday questions from real people who have been there, done that.

The same approach worked at Twitter in the early days. We didn’t launch with hashtags, @replies, or Retweets. Those features were the paths-turned-sidewalks. When we put a simple version of our new Jelly out there in the world, we’re going to be excited to see what people do with it.

The Value of Listening

You watch for patterns. You see what people love, and you see what they are trying to do. Then, you and your team use your product expertise to implement features that help people accomplish these things. It’s important to note that the way you design it may not be exactly what people expect.

It’s okay if you don’t give people precisely what they ask. Trust that you know how to design features that will enable what folks are trying to do and make your product stronger for the people who haven’t yet tried it but will. You still have to keep things simple, and like I said, that’s complicated.