Insanely simple: book review

Rob Waller

When a book comes out with this title, we have to review it on the Simplification Centre website. It's by Ken Segall who worked for Apple's advertising agency for many years.

The Simple part refers to the secret of Apple's success. The Insanely part refers to how Steve Jobs achieved it. Segall's not saying Jobs was insane - far from it. He hero-worships Jobs. But he was clearly a difficult and even a frightening person to work for - Segall describes Jobs's manner of dealing with 'stupid' people as a rotating gun turret: if someone on a meeting said something he thought stupid, the room would go silent, while "Steve's 'turret' slowly turned toward the guilty party. Everyone know what was coming - but was powerless to stop it."

The simple design of Apple's products and user experience was the vision of one man, with a small group of trusted colleagues. Perhaps alone in the world of big brands, Apple does not believe in doing customer research before launching a new product, although they often respond to critical feedback once a product is launched.

There's something to be said for this approach. When we deal with any system, or any communication, our instinct is to see it as a single personality. So we expect it to be consistent, with a memory of its promises and of the history of our dealings with it. And we expect it to have integrity and politeness – to be truthful, and to want the transaction to succeed. The easiest way to achieve this is to actually have a single personality designing the system and creating the communications: impossible in most large organisations. That's why organisations define their brands in terms of personality, values and behaviours - whatever you think of the 'brand bollocks' with which they express this, it's an effort to create a consistent persona for customers to relate to. Of course, Apple famously personified their brand in the "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" advertising campaign.

Most of the time we have to deal with different departments who don't speak to each other, with computers that only half work, and with organisations whose personnel are constantly moving on. So it would good if one person could create and defend a vision of a product or service that works. In practice it isn't so easy in most large organisations. Most people with access to the detail that matters to customers are too junior for their views to count, and committees rule. That's where the senior champion comes in. In Apple under Jobs, everyone knew there'd be trouble if the simple, coherent customer experience were threatened.

Segall sees Simplicity as a cause that must fought for in the war against Complexity: "We know that Simplicity is a fragile thing. It needs a champion to ensure that it emerges unscathed from the processes that guide any project or endeavor" (page 193). And he shows how Jobs would frequently take risks to achieve his goal.

Apple also insist on simplicity in their product range – while competitors such as Dell or HP offer you a choice of 20 laptops which look very similar, and have confusing names, Apple offer you two or three - it's easy to understand what or who each model is for, to choose the one you want and then to specify various options. So while simplicity means leaving some options out, but it also creates an emotional bond with the product that means you are happy to adapt to it. As Segall puts it, "Simplicity is what makes people feel like they know you, understand you, and ultimately trust you" (page 157).

Trust is at the heart of simplification – if a communication is simple it generally means something has been left out. We trust that it isn't something that proves to be important later. But of course, complicated documents also require trust: that we are capable of reading and understanding them. Either way, organisations have a duty of care toward their customers,

The full title of Ken Segall's books is Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple's Success. All those capital letters, and the colon-separated snappy hook plus compelling message, tell you it won't be out of place in the business section of the airport bookshop. Not a bad read, with some great stories about the Great Man... and I really enjoyed the quotes just before the preface:

"Simplify, simplify"


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