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How Designing Simple Technology Can Be Really Complicated

How Designing Simple Technology Can Be Really Complicated

At the risk of stating the obvious, simple is better than complex. What is not obvious is how to make things simple.

Over the past several years, Edmentum has solicited feedback from our customers through surveys, classroom visits, focus groups, and usability tests. A consistent theme emerged from this research: our products were too complicated for educators who simply did not have time to spend learning how to use all the features we provided to them. The company responded by forming an experience design team with the mission of simplifying our products and saving educators time.

But, designing simple technology can be really complicated. Why? Because it’s far easier to make things complex than it is to make things simple. Complexity just happens. It requires no thought, no planning, and no understanding of customers’ needs.

Simplicity is hard and rare because it takes both the left brain and the right brain, analysis and synthesis, science and art, structure and creativity, and decomposition and design. Even more challenging, simplicity requires you to cope with the chaos of complexity, to see through it to find the simplicity that hides at the core of every design problem.

Products often start out simple but not very capable. Over several years and multiple releases, they accrue much more capability—i.e., features—but often at the expense of simplicity. Eventually, the effort that customers must exert to master the complexity of the product can exceed the perceived value they receive from it.

At some point in the product life cycle, customer feedback starts coming in that reveals how complex the product has become. That’s what was happening at Edmentum. Educators found value in our product features and were requesting us to add more with each release. But, over time, we had added so many features that our products had become difficult to navigate. We started receiving requests for features that were already there—educators just couldn’t find them. As a result, Edmentum was wasting research and development dollars to implement features that virtually no one was using.  

The traditional response to complexity is to start making incremental design improvements to move the product back below the effort/value threshold.

This may improve things for a while, but typically, the allure of feature creep (ongoing expansion that adds complexity) offsets any incremental gains made in simplifying the experience. It’s far easier to add than to subtract, to keep bolting on new parts to old design paradigms than to recognize that the old paradigms have reached the limits of their usefulness.

Often, what’s needed is an entirely new approach to design, one that retains the product’s power and capability and dramatically simplifies the experience.

This is hard to do, but Edmentum is doing it. With our #EducatorFirst philosophy and our simplicity-by-design methodology, we are focusing on not features, but, rather, the outcomes educators need to achieve in their jobs and the results educators expect to achieve with our programs.

We understand that educators buy our programs to help them achieve outcomes—things like increased graduation rates, measurable student growth, and higher proficiency scores on state assessments. But en route to these outcomes, educators expect our programs to support their efforts by helping them achieve certain intermediate results—things like showing them which students are off pace in the coursework, telling them whether their students understand the skill or standard they’ve just taught, or helping them group their students for targeted remediation.

You can see this recommitment to results-driven simplicity in the upcoming summer release of our Courseware product. The educator and administrator experiences have been completely reimagined. Whereas customers previously had to memorize dozens of complex workflows to navigate, educators using our new summer release will only need to understand four simple rules of operation to successfully use the program (as evidenced: our new quick-start navigation guide is a short one-and-a-half pages long and contains only 114 words). Extensive usability testing has confirmed that transitioning from the “old world” to the “new world” will take only minutes, not hours.

Edmentum’s simplicity-by-design approach is about measuring, managing, designing, and simplifying what educators must do and know to achieve the outcomes and results they want to achieve. Program transformations like Courseware take a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of usability testing, and a lot of iterations. But, it is an investment we will continue to make in all our programs as part of our commitment to putting educators first!

Interested in reading more about Edmentum’s design process of simplifying complex technology? Check out the previous installment in this series, Designing Programs that Put Educators First!