We could all use a sip of Nordic water

Have you ever been in a Bang and Olufsen retail store? Not only are the stores set up to highlight B&O products, the company has also arranged to make those expensive (but very sexy) toys easy to fire up and try out. No written instructions of course. Just simple, unobtrusive panels on each piece of equipment welcoming the shopper to turn on the flat screen or dial the phone or fire up a CD and hear it play on those big cool cone speakers.

And I saw an interview the other day with the CEO of Nokia. He noted that “very few users of Nokia phones had ever picked up a users manual” and that even as Nokia’s mobile phones become both more complex and feature-rich, he “wanted to keep it that way.”

Then there’s IKEA. It ships its furniture flat with a single how-to-put-it-together instruction booklet, one that uses pictures instead of words as far as possible to make one booklet work in as many international markets as possible. And IKEA includes a single Allen key, that single key being everything you need to hook it all together.

Bang and Olufsen. Nokia. IKEA. Think there might be something in the Nordic water that makes those guys so clever? I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that in fact the Mac and the iPod were both invented in a secret Apple lab in Oslo or Helsinki My point, and I do have one, is the increasing power and appeal of the reduce-and-simplify approach in a world of increasing complexity. The days of selling or building technology and then expecting the world to embrace it just because of what it does (the “function rich” approach) are vanishing.

Think not? Take a look at your own consumer behaviour – What do you like? What drives you crazy? – and then extrapolate it to the business we’re in. Example: I have one digital access card for a parkade. And then another card to open the door on the floor where I work. And then another card to get me into the building I live in. To hell with three separate cards. To hell with cards period. As far as I’m concerned, you can implant a chip under the skin on the top of my left hand, and program it for the access I’ll need to the parkade/office/my apartment, along with my banking machine access, now that I think about it.

If I ever need more functionality, instead of giving me another card, just plug me in for a second and update the chip. Now that would make my life simpler – I’d always have what I needed i.e. access, I’d never really lose the thing, I’d never have to dig a stack of cards out of my wallet or the glove box or wherever I left them again, and all I’d have to do is wave my left hand by a reader to get into/get access to whatever I needed. How’s that for a simple interface?

And, yes, for the paranoid amongst us, I’d have to have the ability to disable the thing myself on a moment’s notice.

What does this kind of thinking mean to the business we’re in? What is the IT equivalent of five swipe cards? I’m thinking that if we can’t reduce and simplify our applications inventories (“Do we really need that many separate and different applications in this organization?”), we’re not going to be popular.

If we insist that our non-IT partners understand which servers they’re connecting to before they get on our network, for example, we’ll lose out again. After all, the consumer is thinking “I don’t care about server names, and I don’t expect to have to remember them. Just connect me automatically when I log in”.

I suggest that one of the best things that the IT business can do in 2004 is to take a lead from the consumer products business and strive for simplicity. Like the wise man said: the best technology is indistinguishable from magic, and magic shouldn’t require an operating manual.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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