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The Crisis of Complexity
How'd We Get into This Mess?
COMPLEXITY IS WREAKING HAVOC ON BUSINESS, GOVERNMENT, AND FINANCE.
In 1980, the typical credit card contract was about a page and a half long. Today it is thirty-one pages. The consequence is that people no longer read these agreements, then find their accounts canceled or subject to high interest rates.
Landline phone customers paid more than $2 billion a year for unauthorized charges, according to 2011 FCC estimates, largely because the bills are so confusing that most customers "never realized they were being charged." Of course they didn't realize it. What is the difference between "Basic," "Regional," "Non-Basic," and "All Other" charges? Not to mention that there are eleven separate taxes, fees, and "other charges" that amount to almost 50 percent of a typical wireless phone bill.
Homeowners spend an average of $868 per year for homeowner's insurance without understanding what they've bought. A 2007 National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) survey revealed that one-third to one-half of insurance policyholders were misinformed about what perils are covered and how much they might receive if they made a claim. The study included 673 respondents interviewed by phone with a margin of error of 3.8 percent at a 95 percent level of confidence.
Marquis Dunson died in 2002 after his parents gave the one-year-old Infants' Tylenol for three days to treat his cold symptoms. In the subsequent lawsuit, which resulted in a $5 million award, the plaintiffs argued that the warning labels and directions on the Infants' Tylenol label did not make clear that an overdose of acetaminophen, Tylenol's active ingredient, could lead to liver failure. The FDA estimates that an average of 458 deaths each year are due to acetaminophen overdoses.
Southern Medical Journal published a study that estimated a dermatologist signs his or her name 29,376 times a year. Can someone do anything thirty thousand times a year with focus and certainty?
The United States was founded and governed for over two centuries on the basis of a document that is six pages long. That is 0.1 percent of the length of the current income tax code, which currently runs a whopping fourteen thousand pages.
What do these stories have in common? They're among many examples of how complexity is costing us money, undermining government and business, and putting our health and even our lives at risk. Our current crisis of complexity is just now beginning to be the subject of a percolating public debate. The first stirrings and rumblings are being voiced in the form of op-eds, tweets, and blogs challenging the notion that disclosing information is the same as informing people. Merely telling consumers that they are being taken advantage of does not solve the underlying injustice. It is at best a halfway measure. But for the most part, how are we as citizens, patients, businesspeople, consumers, investors, borrowers, and students responding? With complacency.
We have allowed complexity to get the better of us—permitted companies, organizations, governments, and institutions to overwhelm our good judgment and violate our basic rights. We have passively paid when faced with indecipherable fees and ignored dozens of mysterious features on gadgets we can't figure out how to use. We find ourselves lost in multilayered phone trees and jumping through hoops to make insurance claims.
"Anything simple always interests me."
All of which raises the question: Why do we tolerate complexity in our lives? Most of us figure we don't have a choice. We may even occasionally blame ourselves for being overwhelmed and confused. ("This is over my head, I must be an idiot.") So we pay the occasional overdraft fee of $34 that strikes us as unfair and certainly annoying, but not devastating. We don't see the ice age of complexity approaching in the distance, because we only experience small blizzards of paperwork. So we trudge along, hoping that we're not too misinformed and that we're not getting cheated too badly.
It doesn't have to be that way.
There is a powerful antidote and a practical answer within our grasp. It can be summed up in a word: simplicity.
What is simplicity?
There's nothing simple about simplicity. It is a concept with many nuances and lines. A second pass suggests that clarity makes for simplicity—something with clear intent that quickly conveys its purpose or use. With even greater magnification, you find that it's about essence—cutting to what matters, delivering substantive content that seems to speak to an audience of one. Lastly, it's not about what is there but what you take—a feeling of confidence, of trust, of satisfaction. So for us, simplicity has no synonym—it's not just convenience, clarity, usability, timeliness, or beauty. It's the sum of all of those, and that's why it is so rare. When you reach a point where you have achieved transparency (laying bare the underlying truth whatever it reveals), clarity (expressing meaning clearly and simply), and usability (making something fit for its purpose), you have likely achieved simplicity.
Making things simple requires dedication to clarity, honesty, discipline, and intelligence. Some of the great minds in history have understood this.
—LEONARDO DA VINCI
"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
In the twenty-first century, Steve Jobs emerged as one of the great champions of simplicity. While other companies complicated their gadgets with proliferating bells and whistles, Apple succeeded by anticipating users' needs through streamlining and paring down—one button replacing three, and easy-to-understand icons in place of techie jargon. John Sculley, the former president of Apple, observed that Jobs was a minimalist who was "constantly reducing things to the simplest level." But Sculley made a careful distinction: "Not simplistic—simplified." The point is that there is a world of difference between simple and simplistic. The distinction lies in understanding what is essential and meaningful as opposed to what is not, then ruthlessly eliminating the latter, while putting emphasis and focus on the former.
Through the years, we have come to believe in simplicity as a philosophy, a guiding principle, and a way of life. And based on our experience, we believe that:
Simplicity works—in business, in government, in life.
Everyone needs it more now than ever. People can and should demand it.
A crisis of complexity has escalated to a critical point where a decision must be made. We either relinquish the power to understand and control what affects us, or we fight for a better, simpler way to conduct our daily affairs and our commercial transactions. This book is meant to explain the wide-ranging applications of simplicity—how it works and why it benefits us. But we also hope it will serve as a call to action: the spark for a movement toward reduction of societal, governmental, and corporate complexity.
If you're fed up with the fine print that hinders you every day or you're a businessperson who wants to get closer to customers instead of alienating them with complicated products, policies, and communications, then you are a prime candidate for this movement.
On the other hand, if you're a bureaucrat who revels in red tape or a lawyer who loves dense legal jargon, consider yourself forewarned. This book aims to demystify what you do, expose the reasons why you do it, and make it a lot harder to keep doing it.
After the Citibank success that launched simplification as a business for us, people started coming to our company with projects from all kinds of businesses, even Uncle Sam himself. We were hired to simplify forms for the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as the Internal Revenue Service (with whom we developed the simplified 1040EZ single-page tax form). We began to develop a reputation as simplification specialists (so much so that Alan Siegel was dubbed "Mr. Plain English" by People magazine).
—OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
"I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity."
Alan worked with Carnegie-Mellon University to establish a Communications Design Center that combined communications theory, cognitive research, and corporate assignments to make students aware that there was a new occupation emerging. We developed and refined a Simplification Blueprint methodology and established a Simplicity Lab, where concepts and communications are tested to see if they're clear and understandable. The Blueprint is a strategic view of how and when to communicate, looking at the dimensions of speed, media, tone, format, and level of customization. The Simplicity Lab is an online tool that allows us to determine actual comprehension while evaluating people's perception of simplicity. For the past thirty years, we've been out there on the front lines, witnessing firsthand how companies, government agencies, and everyday people are coping with the crisis of complexity.
We've learned several invaluable lessons.
We refuted the erroneous belief that simplicity was "dumbing down" by continually stressing that it is an effective shorthand for clarity, accessibility, and usability, which benefits everyone, not just those with limited literacy or education.
We became skeptical of legislating simplicity. All too often, government bureaucrats want to establish readability formulas as the standard of comprehension or use all uppercase, bold type as a means of emphasis. In our risk-averse society, this had shifted the focus from true communication and consumer understanding to one of compliance with the law while failing to achieve its spirit.
We realized that going back to a blank slate is critical. The key to breakthrough simplicity is to question the content and make sure it reflects reality. Throw out unenforceable provisions, question outdated business practices, challenge inertia.
"Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler."
We discovered that the principles of simplicity apply to every interaction, whether printed, electronic, verbal, or visual. It doesn't matter whether it is a contract, an instruction, a touchscreen, or a phone tree. Whether it is a prompt on a bank ATM, the wording of a prescription label, or the graphics on a global positioning device, it is a form of communication. Products of all types—appliances, vehicles, medicines, foods—and services whether provided by a hotel, a hospital, or an online retailer can benefit from simplicity.
We found that simplification provides significant business benefits in the form of cost savings, better client retention, enhanced employee efficiency, and competitive advantage for first movers.
We don't view complexity as a necessary evil. We see it as a thief that must be apprehended. It robs us of time, patience, understanding, money, and optimism. We're always looking for clues as to why something became so convoluted, what the motive was—and how the culprit can be stopped before doing more harm.
As for simplicity, we think of it as the essence of the golden rule. Everyone wants to understand what is being offered or expected of them, and simplicity helps make that clear. It shortens the distance between people. It's about building humanity into everything you do, whether you're communicating with people, designing products, or delivering services. It indicates that we've taken the time to move the complexity of something out of the way so that the recipient of an object, a deed, a gesture, or a letter understands what we mean. It can also be a thing of structural beauty. Conveying a lot of information in a tight bundle is as elegant as a biological taxonomy (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). If every living creature can be identified with just seven classifications, why shouldn't we be able to similarly distill anything?
—ARKADI KUHLMANN, CEO OF ING DIRECT USA
"The busier life gets, the more value there is in simplicity as a point of competitive differentiation."
Following the golden rule—all well and good. But simplicity is also a bottom-line issue in business. As you'll see through the numerous case studies, companies that simplify their products, services, and communications are able to improve their relationship with customers. They usually are more productive—because when you make things simple and clear for customers, you spend less time having to answer their questions on customer service lines. These businesses are also more efficient, taking a less-is-more approach. Streamlining operations cuts costs and brings more focus to the company and its mission. And it also invariably provides a better overall experience for the consumer.
As critical as it is in business, simplicity is not just a business issue—it's an everyday life issue, among people struggling to deal with government bureaucracy, confusion in the medical realm, indecipherable bills and applications, shady contracts, feature-laden products. The human toll caused by these problems begins at birth and runs the gamut from college students drowning in loan agreements to senior citizens unable to access their Medicare benefits. There is nothing that cannot be made simpler.
So why, then, is complexity winning?
There isn't a short answer. There are various social forces, popular misconceptions, attitudes, and motivations that either let complexity fester or actively oppress simplicity. These problem areas cross the lines between business, government, and private life—because the same forces that cause complexity in one area also cause it in another.
On the principle that one must know what causes a problem before you can begin to solve it, here are some of the key factors fueling the complexity crisis.
Simplicity is hard to achieve
It takes work to organize, streamline, clarify, and generally make sense of the world around us. People are naturally more inclined to take the easy way out—one that doesn't involve such onerous tasks as going through multiple design cycles to make a product as simple as possible. This human impulse to find the path of least resistance is at work on the part of both companies and customers. Similarly, many engineers get enamored of their own creativity and keep adding features just because they can, not because they have verified consumer need for the feature.
To be sure, it is easier to ignore or tolerate complexity than to battle it—but only at first. Gradually, this "easier" path we've chosen grows so cluttered with complication that it becomes difficult to move ahead, and eventually, the path is gone—completely overgrown. That's where we are now.
As human beings, we are programmed to learn from our experiences. When faced with certain limitations over and over again, our brains begin to perceive these limitations as permanent restrictions, even if they're removed. When someone has several experiences of being confused, that person starts assuming they'll never be able to understand any legal document, so why bother trying? This results in what psychologists refer to as "learned helplessness." Trap a bee in a jar long enough and it will stop trying to fly out, even after the cap is removed.
To some extent, we may even be inclined to put our trust in complexity, developing a sort of "master" complex. The New York Times journalist David Segal observed that when we encounter "ideas and objects that are hard to understand," we are likely to assume that these complicated offers are the product of "sharp impressive minds." Don't bet on it. A sharp mind could have articulated the offer in an accessible manner. Complexity is a failing, unless it was intentional—in which case you'd really better watch your step.
Excerpted from Simple by Alan Siegel, Irene Etzkorn. Copyright © 2014 Alan Siegel Irene Etzkorn. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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