Monday, November 8, 2010

Can Something Be Too Easy?

I spend a huge amount of my time trying to make things easier to use. Most of the time, the problem with products isn’t the idea, it’s that the people who are meant to use them just get horribly confused.

If you’d asked me last year, I would have said there’s no way to make something too easy.

However, I’ve recently seen a couple of examples that reminded me that there are some surprising dangers to simplification.

It Can Piss Off Certain Users

I’ve worked with companies who have a small but passionate group of power users who are deeply involved with the product and the community. The products that gather this particular sort of following tend to have a lot of user generated content.

Now, when you first start out, your tools for users may be…well, a polite word would be “rough.” A better way of putting it would probably be “pieces of crap.” And yet, if your offering is compelling enough, you will end up with a group of people who care deeply enough to put up with all of your bugs and failings and complicated interfaces, and they will create something awesome in spite of all that.

Of course, they will bitch and whine about how hard they have it, but when you actually take steps to make your product too easy to use – for example, if noobs can all of a sudden use templates to create something that used to take power users hours or days – the early adopters who put all that time into your product will scream. By making it possible for anybody to recreate their hard work, you’ve devalued their contribution.

This is especially true in companies where users can make money or gain points from user generated content. You see, your early adopters want all those hours they put into learning the tools to be worth something. They still want to be the highest ranked on the leaderboard and to make the most cash from selling their products.

What do you do about it? Honestly? This is a great problem to have. It means that you’ve taken something that’s been proven to be fun to do and made it accessible to a whole lot more people. The most important thing is to try to get your community onboard with the changes before they happen so that you reduce the outcry.

You also want to make sure that the old guard still feels valued and useful. For example, enlist their help in creating templates. Get their feedback on adding power user features to the new tools. Give them credit for creating content without using the tools.

Sure, you’ll lose some early adopters, but that was going to happen when you went mainstream, anyway. Your true power users may even learn the new tools and push the boundaries to create something even more awesome with them.

It Can Defy Expectations

Recently, I was working with a team developing a social marketplace where users can buy and sell products. One of our goals was to make the selling process as simple as possible so that anybody could sell anything.

Boy, did we succeed.

In fact, we were so successful that some users in testing simply didn’t know where to start. They all expected that they would have to find some place in the interface to start selling, set up an elaborate account with lots of information, and then put in a lot of effort describing the product they wanted to sell.

What they actually had to do was connect with Facebook, find the thing they wanted to sell in the comprehensive catalog, and make a few simple selections from drop down menus. When we showed them where to get started, they were absolutely floored by how simple it was.

Not only was our method easier than anything they’d ever used, it was also far easier than they expected. This was, of course, the crux of the problem. They expected selling to be hard, so they looked for a hard way to do it, totally overlooking the giant Sell This button on virtually every page.

What to do about it? One option is to stick to user expectations, even when users expect things to be harder than necessary. I’m not really a fan of this option though, since it hurts everybody at the expense of making things obvious to only very new users. In the case of my client, we went with very lightweight, simple user training.

We provided people an easy to locate place to get started selling and some simple contextual help that solved the problem. The key was, we didn’t make the process any harder; we just made the starting point more obvious to people so that they didn’t start looking for some more complicated solution.

It Can Hide Key Features

I know! I’m always harping on you to reduce the number of features you have in your product. And, nine times out of ten, it’s a much bigger problem to have too many features than too few. But there’s sometimes this weird compulsion to hide features from new users in order to make the first time user experience as simple as possible.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients ask if we should drastically alter the first time user experience so that many power user features are hidden.

Now, I’m all for streamlining the onboarding process or providing all sorts of help for new users, but don’t do it by hiding stuff. You’re just training your user to do things wrong or telling them that certain features don't actually exist in your product. And, of course, hiding things the first time around just means that your returning users are coming back to an entirely unfamiliar product, so they have to go through a first time user experience all over again!

What to do about it? I’m a big fan of in-product contextual help along with optional tutorials, if your product is really complicated enough to need that much help. This allows the user to jump right into the product and start poking around, which makes some user extremely happy, while providing just enough guidance for other users who want more help.

And honestly, sometimes the problem isn't too many features. It's that the features you have are all jumbled together in a confusing way. You can often simplify the design without simplifying the actual product.

How Easy Is Too Easy?

Unfortunately, this is going to vary from product to product. But the best way to find out if you’ve made something too easy is the same way that you find out if you’ve made things too hard. You listen to your users.

Now, get out there and simplify things. Just not too much.

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