6: The Future is Simplexity

Two facts stand in contrast: first, that mobile devices are continually becoming more complex and versatile; second, that mobile owners use less than 20% of the applications and capabilities their phones presently possess. Taken together, this indicates that a lot of money is being wasted on developing services that will never be used.

(EN: The weakness of this thesis is that it fails to consider the overlap. If one user values A and C and the other values B and D, a device must offer ABCD functionality to be useful to them both. This seems to be conveniently omitted from such analyses.)

The author also cites the 2008 Accenture study that indicated that 95% of electronic products that were returned by their owners were functioning perfectly according to the manufacturers' specifications - the gap is that they device did not deliver the value the customer expected, either because they were "sold" on false promises, or they were not usable by anyone but the engineers who built them. And in this sense, it is critical to consider the consumer's perspective - a device does not deliver value unless the user can operate it to derive value.

The notion that consumers are disinterested and lazy is a convenient but invalid excuse. The level of frustration consumers express with mobile devices suggest that they are interested in obtaining value, and the amount of money and time spent on "how to" books clearly demonstrates a willingness to put effort into learning to use things.

There is a segment of otaku (geeks) who will invest an inordinate amount of time and effort in learning to use the full array of features of a given technology, whether or not it has any immediate value to them. This segment is strongly represented in the development community, but only a small segment of the consumer market.

Most technologies have not evolved beyond the first phase: they have wondrous capabilities that are not at all usable by most consumers and remain popular only with a small group of early adopters.

The second phase of any product is where more people begin to see the value of it, and adopt and use it. To evolve to this phase, technology must become simple: it must provide clear value, and it must be easily usable. The author uses the phrase "simplexity" to describe this notion.

Simplexisty is evident in design when an object blends into the user's existing environment and does not call attention to itself. The user doesn't need a manual or instruction guide to pick something up and begin using it immediately.

The computer did not gain popularity in the days of text operating systems; it is only when the GUI enabled users to point and click to launch applications and open files, rather than having to learn to speak in the machine's operating system language, that it was valued and adopted. The Internet did not catch on for almost a decade, until search engines made it possible to enter a few words and find information and resources.

The author does concede that there is a learning curve to use technology. Traditionally, there were "bridging kits" that came in the form of documentation - instruction sheets and manuals. When some products became intuitive, manuals were no longer necessary. However, it was then assumed that all products were so intuitive that no instruction is necessary: manufacturers could spare the expense of documentation on the premise that users didn't need it. The fact that most users don't know how to use their devices, and spend millions on third-party how to books, is evidence that this conclusion is wrong.


Some incidents in the use of the "mobile credit card" are illustrative. Japan is the only industrialized nation in which mobile payment systems have gained any significant amount of traction. This is, as usual, dismissed as a matter of culture: but there are more practical reasons.

Prior to mobile payment systems, commuters would pay for each ride on a train by using coins, and eventually tokens, to pass through a turnstile. This was alter upgraded to card-passes that could be swiped, and then to RFID cards that could be tapped, to gain entry - so there was some progress before mobile.

2001: Japanese Railways offers a mobile payment method. Users can beam payment information from a device that is either in-hand or convenient to access as they pass through the turnstiles. There is no learning curve - just click and go.

2004: The payment system is extended to enable the consumer to purchase small items - cigarettes, snacks, and beverages - from vending machines and retail booths in train stations.

2005: The consumer can now link their mobile payment system to a bank account or credit card. There is some learning curve to do so, but not much. Once done, the consumer no longer needs to go to a kiosk to add funds to their account - but the kiosks still exist for customers who prefer a prepaid account.

2006: As more retailers support the mobile payment systems, banks take interest, and the payment system can be tied directly to a line of credit, so there is no longer a need to associate the mobile system to a separate credit card or bank account.

None of this represents anything specific to do with the Japanese culture: the technology serves practical needs that exist in any location where people make regular purchases from a given vendor.

And moreover, the evolution of this technology is not one of adding more complexity, but in making it more simple. The complexity is on the vendor's side - the merchant who wishes to accept payment cards, the bank that wishes to issue them. The action the user takes to send payment credentials has not appreciably changed.


The concept of "simplexity" is based on delivering capabilities that address user needs in a way that best enables the user to leverage the former to serve the latter. It encompasses technology, integrated services, behavior-based analysis, and usability.

The author describes three phases of evolution:

  1. Simplicity - A need is identified and a solution is designed to address it. At this level, the technology is fairly simple and easy to use.
  2. Complexity - The basic technology is augmented to accommodate additional needs and provide additional functions. The device becomes complicated and users must invest time to figure out how to use the plethora of features, some of which they do not need at all.
  3. Simplexity - Designers pare away useless or distracting features and determine which are actually useful to the user, and find a way to make them easy to use.

The author takes the phone as his example: the first generation, it was a simple device with a speaker, a microphone, and a ringer to alert the owner of an inbound call. In the second generation, manufacturers added voice messages, called ID, an address book, a camera, internet access, hands-free earpiece, alarm clock. e-mail, and a host of other features that made it a complex device. The third-generation pares away all the useless features to provide personalized services based on the needs of the user.

It is suggested that the Japanese market differs from the western market in its focus on the customer. In the west, products are made as complex as possible, on the belief that the features of the device are their source of value to the user - the more the better. In Japan, the competition is based on the value that the customer derives from the product and its ease of use, features and functions merely being a means to that end rather than an end in itself.

As a result, Japanese manufacturers spend a great deal of time on pursuing ease of use. The notion is not entirely absent in the west, as companies often study and survey the customer to learn their preferences, but it takes a back seat to other concerns.


A look at modern Japan reveals a broad range of products and services the reflect the concept of simplexity.

Navigation Systems

The automotive industry alone is one in which vehicles have become increasingly complicated ans onboard computers are now providing a vast array of features that are largely unusable: the array of sensors that monitor vehicle performance, in-vehicle entertainment systems, and now mobile information systems that connect the driver to external sources of navigation and logistics information, the passenger vehicle is becoming a highly intricate environment of devices that only a well-trained engineer can understand.

While western manufacturers continue to load down the automobile with more and more features, the Japanese market has shifted from complexity to simplexity, seeking to identify with the needs of the driver in making intelligent choices about what features to include and how they may be leveraged.

Car navigation systems have been available for nearly a decade, and have strayed from their initial purpose - to guide a driver to his intended destination. These systems now provide features having nothing to do with navigation - manufacturers are simply leveraging the fact that there is a screen that drivers give their attention and that can be used for an array of purposes: surfing the Internet, having video conferences, and the like. Some of these purposes even detract from the initial intent - a mapping application that shows nearby businesses that want the driver's money (restaurants, stores, etc.) attempt to interfere with the goal of getting instructions to where the driver wants to go.

The author looks to the Nissan Carwings system, which strips away the various features and functions that drivers don't need, and providing access (not intrusion) by those the driver does. The core function is to map a route and direct the driver.

Only those features that have a direct impact on the core function are included in the main display at all times. For example, a driver on the road is expected to always be interested in knowing traffic conditions along his route, and having the ability to plot an alternate route to avoid congestion.

Other features area available when conditions suggest they might be needed. For example, there is no need to constantly inform the user of the location of nearby filling stations and their prices when the vehicle has a full tank of gas - but it can appear when the tank goes below a certain level. Or when the vehicle's sensors detect mechanical damage from a collision or failure that render the vehicle inoperable or unsafe to drive, an emergency screen can take over because the original display is no longer relevant.

Still other features are unobtrusive and available on demand. If the driver decides that he wants to take a break from his trip and grab a snack, he can summon information about nearby restaurants - it is not constantly on-screen to distract him from the task of driving, but there only when the driver wants it to be.

Moreover, considerable though has been put into the question of whether the driver needs a "screen" at all. Given that the driver's attention is, or ought to be, on the road when the vehicle is in motion, the screen is a dangerous distraction and voice commands are more appropriate. While the screen may be necessary to plotting a route to a destination, it might be dimmed or turned completely off when the vehicle is in gear.

Video Games

From the onset, the competition in the game space has been focused on the computing power of the console: a faster processor and better video card meant being able to provide more interactivity and better visual effects.

This led to complex controls - some with 10 to 14 buttons and double-button actions, and even more complex games, to the point that consumers "figured that operating a jetliner was easier than handling a game controller" and dismissed video gaming entirely as "for geeks" and not for themselves. Hence video gaming long remained a niche industry and failed to capture the general market.

Gaming company Nintendo sought to address this, first by releasing a gaming console called the "Nintendo DS" that used touch-screen displays, such that the only controller the user needed was their fingers, which they already knew how to use. This translated into an inroad to a broader market and billions of dollars in revenues.

The second venture involved the Wii game console, a very simple control device with a four-directional toggle and an action button, plus a motion sensor that enabled to use the controller itself as a physical object - to physically mime the actions of using a golf club, a bat, a fishing rod, a sword, or any number of real-world objects.

While hardcore gamers scoffed at the simplicity, it was a major hit with the mass market of non-gamers who abhorred the complexity of traditional video games. The sudden appeal of video gaming to non-techies did not come from a change in culture, but a change in the design of products that provided a straightforward and intuitive user experience.

Electronic Program Guides

Video recorders likewise started off simply: by using controls that are like a tape recorder, the user could record a television program and view it later. The addition of a clock to enable the user to schedule recordings, programming guides to help the user find programs they might want to watch, and other features made the device excessively complex.

By simplifying the controls and providing an on-screen guide that closely mimicked printed television listings, the device was made easier to use.

The author discusses the separate notion of video indexing - breaking an hour-long program into smaller "chapters" that the user could skip and search by analyzing the quality of the audio track (advertisers' practice of making commercials louder worked against them, enabling consumers to effectively skip their content) or analyzing to identify the "transition screen" most programs display before and after commercials.

The same approach can be used to edit down a sports broadcast: generally, when the on-field action is exciting, the volume and pitch of the announcer's voice and crowd noise from the event increases, making it possible to automate a "highlights reel" that features only the interesting parts of the game and skipping the dull moments in-between.

There's an extended consideration of "G-Guide," a Japanese standard for TV and DVR that is gaining wider adoption. This service couples a data stream with the video device that enables users to access data about a program - such as broadcast genre, title, actors, and other filters, that augments the brief information provided by the broadcaster for typical program guides.

This same technology is used to link the DVR device in the user's home to their mobile device - so that the user may schedule recordings or even watch recorded media from remote locations.

Commercially, the user's preferences as evident in their viewing behavior can be leveraged to promote products based on their lifestyle and attitudes, as well as based on their present location.


In the present day, people are constantly confronted with an overload of information: they have more options in terms of both data and functionality than they need and find it difficult to access those that are relevant among the clutter of many that are not. They do not need to be educated in navigating a labyrinth of menus and unneeded features - they need it to be made simple and relevant to their needs.

In terms of technology, the mobile device will always be limited by size. The screen may get a bigger, different input methods devised, but it must still fit in a holster, pocket, or purse in order to be mobile. As such, it will require services to be smaller as well: simple functionality to deliver a needed function in a convenient manner.

As such, the concepts of aggregation and customization are particularly relevant to the next generation of digital services - it's not about doing more, but doing exactly what is needed. The author refers to the notion of "concierge services" that bring together information fro other sources and repurpose it for consumption according to what a specific user needs in a specific situation and environment.

That is to say, mobile requires simplexity, and it likely always will: a simple way to access a broad array of capabilities. And to do this does not require a smarter consumer, but a smarter manufacturer, and a better-designed device and software.


At the onset, the problem with the Internet is that it didn't have sufficient content to be useful. Now, the amount of information available online is staggering, and the problem that users face is finding a way to sift through it top find what is needed.

Search engines have never been an ideal solution to this problem: they are primitive and difficult to use, and rely upon the user to be sophisticated enough to structure a query to find what they need. And this task must be repeated each time the user is looking for something.

Ideally, a search engine should enable the user to ask a question, just as he might ask it of another person, and get a direct answer that satisfies his need for information, rather than a million search results he must then filter through, then have to click through to Web pages and hunt, hoping they might provide the information he needs. This has not been achieved.

The (undelivered) promise of the semantic Web might hold a partial answer. This concept involved the user of intelligent agents that would gather content and services from the far corners of the Internet, tailored to the needs and interests of a specific user. Such agents would also need to understand language, to interpret what a user might mean but does not have the verbal skill to accurately express, and to understand the context of the user to be able to provide an answer that is relevant to his specific needs.

(EN: This is not a problem of mobile, specifically, though it would be of particular importance to a device that does not offer a sizable screen to sift through a long list of results and open potential matches in separate windows.)


The authors return to the infrastructure and ecosystem of the Japanese mobile internet - particularly, the collaborative spirit of the various players in the mobile space that share a common goal of providing services that are useful to the end-user.

They take a dim view of mobile in the west: companies competing with one another for control of markets, attempting to compete by creating an ever-larger package of disparate functionality, and regarding the consumer with a level of indifference that borders on contempt.

They do, however, concede that the iPhone holds promise. While it is done in a very American way, with one player (Apple) holding complete control over the device, the software, and the services available to users, and generally focusing on the value the device delivers to the user - but it does offer the American market some of the functions hat have been available in Japan five years before its conception.

From there, the author provides two more examples of "mobile simplexity in action."

Niwango Mail

Niwango introduced a mobile search service that is available free of charge: the user sends a request via e-mail to a search service that considers the content of the query along with the information it accumulates about the user to send a return message containing not only an answer, but other information that the user might require.

For example, if the user asks about an Italian restaurant, the service sends back an e-mail providing information about those in their immediate area - but not just a list of names, but menus, reviews, and directions from the user's location.

This approaches the functionality of an intelligent agent, in that the service does not merely provide a list of possible answers, but attempts to predict the needs of the user.


This service began as a location-based social network, whose primary value was putting people ion touch with others in the "real world." While the site offered traditional social networking tools for online interaction, such as profiles, blogs, mail services, and the like, its primary value was in enabling users to tell the service where they are, and allowing their friends to locate them.

Aside of its use in connecting people in the real world, this service would leverage the knowledge of friends and acquaintances: a user who wants to know if a given restaurant is "good" places greater value on the opinions and experiences of people they actually know, rather than those of strangers.

It can further leverage commonalities among people to provide more reliable recommendations - people who have similar attitudes and interests, who are closer to you in their demographic profile, etc. provide advice that is more relevant than those who are less "like" you.


The author recaps the four main points of this chapter:

  1. Customers want a quick and simple solution that serves their needs, without a clutter of useless features or a steep learning curve
  2. Customers delight in solutions that are hospitable and accommodating to their specific needs.
  3. A service that is relevant to the user's current situation, location, and needs is more valuable than a comprehensive service that is not.
  4. A service that "learns" the user's tastes and preferences becomes even more valuable over time.

This also touches on a notion discussed earlier in the book: the user wants to be in control of their own experience. When confronted by a complex interface that offers features that they do not need, the user has a sense of being controlled by the service rather than being in control of it.

A good service is like a good waiter: the waiter's job is to serve the customer, not manage or control him. The waited knows what a regular customer usually orders and can make suggestions based on the customer's tastes and preferences. The waiter knows his customer, and knows how best to serve him. Computerized services, with an infallible memory and broad information resources, should be able to do this at least as well, but most are not.

The author also remarks on the Web 2.0 concept of "perpetual beta" - the notion is that half-baked ideas can be fobbed off on the consumer and their use or adoption of services can be used to make a better product in the future. Naturally, the problem of this approach is that it takes the customer's loyalty for granted - and assumes that they will still be around when you fix what is broken.

This is not the approach he recommends: services should be designed intelligently in the first place, with additional features added when the need arises as determined by the behavior of the customer, not the desire of the business to gain competitive advantage by offering unique (but useless) features, or the fascination of the engineers with what can be done with the technology (regardless of whether anyone needs to do it).

It's also critical to stop focusing on the otaku - the geeks and expert users who want their devices to be as complex and multifunctional as possible - and focus on the much larger audience of "real" consumers whose desires are driven by their practical needs. These consumers aren't avoiding technology because it doesn't do enough, but because it tries to do too much, and obscures what they really need.