Simplicity Demands Difficult Choices

    July 10, 2006

Too much web management suffers from trying to be all things to all people. Apple and Google have triumphed from targeting common tasks.

I downloaded Apple iTunes because I wanted to play and manage my music. That’s the overwhelming reason I use iTunes. Over the years, I have used Real Player to listen to music, so I decided to have a look again at what Real Player has to offer.

When I start Real Player it takes an average of 23 seconds to fully load. When I load iTunes it takes an average of 12 seconds. The first thing I see when I load iTunes is my songs and I can immediately start playing.

The first thing I see when I loaded Real Player is a website trying to sell me stuff. I then need to select the link “Music & My Library.” It takes about 6 seconds to fully load the page. Then I get a selection: All music, Artist, Album, Genre, Artist/Album. What I want most of the time is “All Music”. I select that. It takes another 2 seconds. So, in total, it takes 31 seconds to get to the same position it takes iTunes 12 seconds to get to.

That’s not the complete story, however. I’ve noticed that after repeatedly using Real Player it begins to learn my behaviour and will open up the All Music selection after I click on Music & My Library. (Though it doesn’t do this all the time.) I also learned that I don’t have to wait for Real Player to load the initial page. I can click on “Music & My Library” as it loads.

The problem is that I’m impatient. The first couple of times I loaded Real Player I got this overwhelming sense of having my time wasted as I was being pushed stuff I didn’t want. I yearned for the simplicity of Apple. I yearned for something that wasn’t trying to be too clever. I would not have persevered with Real Player had I not been writing this article.

I think here lies a key rule of good web management. Get the basics right first. Focus on the most important tasks and make it as easy as possible for people to be successful at completing these tasks in the fastest possible time.

Again and again, I meet web teams that are excited by the exceptional task, and are bored with the common task. The common task on a website may indeed be boring and often inconsequential to you because you have completed this task so often. You have learned it inside out and to you it seems simple. It seems like there is no more work needs to be done on it.

The exceptional task is much more likely to be exciting and intellectually challenging. Beware. Every time you add an exceptional task to a webpage, you make the environment more cluttered; you make it more difficult to complete the common task.

Google is a simple search engine if you want to search for ordinary webpages. It is not as simple if you want to search for maps, scholarly material, mailing lists, and video. Google makes hard choices on what to simplify and what to complicate. You need to too.

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