Lesson Four

Competing on simple with product design

“Less is more.”

“Less but better.”

We’ve often heard these phrases associated with good product design. But what do they really mean?

“Less is more” was first used by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe during the minimalist design movement in the 1960s. Later, famed Braun industrial designer Dieter Rams adapted the phrase to “less but better.”

As humans, we have limited resources to make decisions before our brains become overwhelmed. For instance, we can only hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information in our short-term memory.

Short-term memory
Our short-term memory can hold between 5-9 pieces of information

And no matter how many people say they can, we cannot multitask.

If we are distracted or given too many options, we don’t make better choices; we tend to make worse choices or no choice at all.

In a study done by Google in August of 2012, it was found that people judged a website’s beauty within 1/50th to 1/20th of a second – faster than you can snap your fingers. What’s more, people consistently rated simpler websites as more beautiful compared to more “visually complex” ones.

“Less is more” and “less but better” work because our brains prefer simple.

“Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company… Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”
Ev Williams, Founder of Twitter

“Easy could mean faster. Easier could mean more obvious. Easy could mean a lot of things. But the part of easy I like is when you take an existing problem, study it until it becomes clear, toss out everything that makes it blurry, and carefully polish what’s left over.”
Jason Friend, Founder of Basecamp

In today’s world, where the next best thing is just a Google search away, complexity is your enemy. There has been a long line of products that may have had better technology or more features but they didn’t survive. Time and again, it’s been the simplest product that wins.

Case Study:

Dropbox

When file sharing service Dropbox started, there were many other similar services available. Founder Drew Houston knew that Dropbox wouldn’t win by competing against more established competitors on the number of features. Dropbox instead focused on the few most important features to make sharing files easier.

Houston said competitors at the time “suffered problems with Internet latency, large files, bugs, or just made him think too much.”

200 million members later, Dropbox has become one the dominant companies in the file sharing industry.

It wasn’t the number of features that made Dropbox great, it was focusing on fewer features and building them right that did. The roots of Dropbox’s success were steeped in simplicity.


Solving a problem more efficiently is innovation. The goal of any technology product, whether it be a website or mobile app, should be to make something easier.

We can be trapped into thinking about all the things we think we need to do to build a product but often it’s the removal of things that make a product great.