John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

Simplicity is a mark of genius


Yesterday I bought a copy of Predictable Irrational by Dan Ariely - and enjoying it so much I'm already halfway through.

The quick summary is that it's a book looking at how humans do not behave rationally, even in situations where we think we are doing exactly that. And it's really, really good.

What's prompted me to stop reading and pick up the laptop however if the following, reasonably lengthy, passage from the chapter on procrastination:

Emphasis are my own

Several years ago, Ford Motor Company struggled to find the best way to get car owners back into the dealerships for routine automobile maintenance. The problem was that the standard Ford automobile had something like 18,000 parts that might need servicing, and unfortunately they didn't all need servicing at the same time (one Ford engineer determined that a particular axle bolt needed inspection every 3,602 miles). And this was just part of the problem: since Ford had more that 20 vehicle types, plus variation model years the servicing of them all was nearly impossible to ponder. All that consumers, as well as service dvisers, could do was page through volumes of thick manuals in order to determine what services were needed.

But Ford began to notice something over at Honda. Even though the 18,000 or so parts in Honda cars had the same ideal maintenance schedules as the Ford cars, Honda had lumped them all into three "engineering intervals" (for instance, every six months or 5,000 miles, every year or 10,000 miles, and every two years or 25,000 miles). This list was displayed on the wall of the reception room in the service department. All the hundreds of service activities were boiled down to simple, mileage-based service events that were common across all vehicles and model years ...

But the bundle board was more than convenient information: it was a true procrastination-buster, as it instructed customers to get their service done at specific times and mileages. It guided them along. And it was so simple that any customer could understand t. Customers were no longer confused. They no longer procrastinated. Servicing their Honda's on time was easy.

Some people at Ford thought this was a great idea, but at first the Ford engineers fought it. They had to be convinced that, yes, drivers could go 9,000 miles without an oil change - but that 5,000 miles would align the oil change with everything else that needed to be done. They had to be convinced that a Mustang and a F-250 Super Duty truck, despite their technological differences, could be put on the same maintenance schedule. They had to be convinced that rebundling their 18,000 maintenance options into three easily scheduled service events - making maintenance as easy as ordering a Value Meal at McDonald's - was not bad engineering, but good customer service (not to mention good business). The winning argument in fact was that it is better to have consumers service their vehicles at somewhat compromised intervals that not to service them at all!

In the end, it happened: Ford joined Honda in building its services. Procrastination stopped. Ford's service bay, which had been 40 percent vacant, filled up. The dealers made money, and in just three years Ford matched Honda's success in the service bay.

...Thoreau wrote, "Simplify! Simplify!" And, indeed, simplification is one mark of real genius.

There's probably nothing I need to add to this to explain why I read this as a great example of good User Experience. We can build highly complex interactive systems for our customers, but very often compromise is better than really offering the user the ability to choose every single option we could be offering them. In which situations, you might say, it's not even a compromise at all but the ideal solution.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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