Why digital success is simple

By Adam Cranfield


There's one thing we can all do to improve our digital strategy today.

Simplify it.

The first websites were simple. Just text and links.

Somewhere along the way we started overcomplicating things.

I was as guilty as anyone. Back in the day, I demanded “interactivity”, aka fancy, flashy (Flashy?) ways to make the website I ran that little bit less intuitive to use.

The huge trend to “mobile first” sites and apps has given a big boost to simplicity. Innovators like Facebook, ASOS, Twitter and the Guardian have shown that with perseverance and creativity it is possible to boil down the user experience so it works even better on a small mobile screen. This design thinking can then be applied to all screen sizes.

Be the best at one thing

Google became the undisputed champion of search by keeping it simple, both in terms of the strategy of being the best at one thing, and the ultra simple user experience they retain to this day. While competitors became bloated and unfocused, Google kept it simple and won.

But simplicity doesn’t appear to be in Google’s DNA. Time after time, Google’s projects - Google Buzz, Google Wave, Google+ - crash and burn, because they don’t keep it simple. Your first thought when trying Google+ might have been similar to mine: “Ooh, this looks clever, but it’s a bit overcomplicated.”

Simple to the core

We all know one company that has simplicity in its DNA. Apple. The iPod, with its single wheel control and pared-down menu, put all other MP3 players in the shade (even if its lack of compatibility with PCs at launch in 2001 meant it took a few years to dominate the market).

One button was all they needed on the iPhone. All apps were identical little squares on your screen. Installing a new app was one click.

Ah. One click. Finally, we are getting there - to the standard of simplicity that we crave. Amazon has one-click ordering. Ocado has one-click “add to order”. How many clicks do key tasks require on your site or app?

Disruptive simplicity

There were plenty of ways to share large files before Dropbox came along. But Dropbox saw that users don’t want to make sharing a file a special event. They want to create a folder, have it behave like any other folder, and give people access to it wherever they are located. Simple.

Before Facebook, Myspace was the social media phenomenon. Myspace pages were the antithesis of simple. Myspace allowed users to customise and hack around their pages however they pleased. The result was a win for individuality and self expression, but a big fail for user experience.

Facebook pages, in contrast, were tightly templated. This produced a much more consistent user experience. It also meant it was relatively easy for Facebook to adapt their platform for phones when the mobile web took off. The Facebook iPhone app launched in 2007, whereas Myspace didn’t have one until a year later.

As simple as real life

But simpler UX wasn’t the main factor in Facebook deposing Myspace. It was another brilliantly simple idea: making people use their real names and identities. Before Facebook, online forums and social networks like Myspace were inhabited by mysterious characters like AmyJ1989 and Raverboy333. This gave online communities an alien feel. Facebook’s big, simple idea was that people should use their true identities online, just like they do in real life.

Myspace had a window of opportunity to quickly learn from Facebook’s smart, simple moves. They should have copied these moves.

The idea behind Twitter was so fiendishly simple, that many early adopters didn’t grasp the impact it would have on communications. Online forums have their loyal fans, but they tend to become dominated by the few, and most forum users are poor self-editors. The simple solution: force people to keep their points short (140 characters), and let everyone decide exactly who they want to listen to (follow). Sure, there are plenty of things that could be improved about the Twitter community experience, but they started the right way by keeping it simple.

Facebook themselves may have copied Twitter’s brilliantly simple idea of the newsfeed - implementing it in 2006, just months after Twitter launched.

The first hurdle

Digital consumers now have such great expectations of simplicity that if you overcomplicate the first steps you might never get any further.

Take the sign-up process. It took some ecommerce sites years to realise that nobody wants to “register as a new user” when trying to buy something. When I can, I almost always sign up to a new app or service using an existing social media account: Facebook, Twitter or Google. Why? Because I don’t have to create a new password or worry about the security credentials of the new service, and I'm usually already signed in to the social account, so it’s one click.

Strategic simplicity

The importance of simplicity in digital goes far beyond user experience. You need strategic simplicity.

Strategic simplicity is closely related to strategic focus. By reducing the number of strategic goals you set, and the number of problems you are trying to solve, your digital product or service has a far greater chance of success.

BuzzFeed has become more popular than the New York Times online and most other news sites by executing brilliantly on a simple strategy. BuzzFeed is highly focused on content that its audience can’t resist sharing. It sticks to a simple formula: headlines that speak directly to its readers and their often niche experiences and sense of identity. BuzzFeed also focuses on unique stories (I’m guessing not too many publications have written about how to clean your vagina) and on high volume (please god not another listicle). Oh, and GIFs. GIFs are super simple, both to create and to watch.

BuzzFeed set out to be the undisputed king of one type of content. You might not like what they do, but they do it better than anyone else right now.

Pinning their hopes on solving one problem

From BuzzFeed, the 97th most popular website in the world, to Pinterest, the 35th most popular.

Before Pinterest launched in 2010 there were already many ways to create and share collections of images online. But there wasn’t a way to easily curate images from other websites and link to them. There were already many ways to create curated lists of links, but they were all pretty ugly and not visual at all.

By focusing on solving one problem - how to curate the visual web - Pinterest was able to move quickly and create one of the fastest growing social networks of all time.

Simplicity in the public interest

The UK’s .gov initiative is rightly held up as brilliant case study in efficient and effective digital strategy.

Two of the Government Digital Service’s (GDS) 10 design principles are about simplicity: “Do less” and “Do the hard work to make it simple”.

In just 15 months, the GDS migrated over 300 websites to sit on a single, standardised .gov.uk site. Strategic simplification on an epic scale.

Think big, think simple

It’s easy to make things complicated.

It’s easy to write more. It’s hard to edit.

It’s easy to add a feature. It’s hard to take one away.

It’s easy to serve 10 “user needs” averagely well. It’s hard to serve one user need brilliantly.

It’s easy to add more goals to your digital strategy. It’s hard to focus on just one and put everything into achieving it.

Simplification requires bravery. It’s about not hedging your bets and not compromising.

So don’t take the easy option. Think big and think simple.


Adam Cranfield is a digital consultant and director at DigitalFWD