The Nonprofit Digital Divide
What Happens When I Have Time to Think

Applying the Laws of Simplicity

Nano I love my iPod Nano. It's a simple, beautiful piece of technology that looks great, feels wonderful in my hand, and delivers to me what I want without unnecessary bells and whistles. As with most Apple products, it's a reflection of the company's commitment to user-centric design.

I thought of this while reading John Maeda's Laws of Simplicity, which I found via Presentation Zen. While the most obvious application of Maeda's Laws is to product development, I think they also have something to tell us about how we run nonprofits, which can sometimes become bloated and overwhelming as we try to be all things to all people. (Bear with me as I wax philosophical. After a weekend of Christmas shopping, I'm in a mood to simplify)

Law 1: The Simplest Way to Achieve Simplicity is Through Thoughtful Reduction
Maeda's first law tells us  "when in doubt, remove. But be careful what you remove." In other words, know what programs, services, processes, etc. we need to have in place in order to be functional and provide value to various customers and then remove the rest. There's a temptation in this field, I've found, to always offer more, as though we can prove our worth by adding something else to the list of what we do. But then we find ourselves in the position of doing many things, none of them well, which is bad for all concerned.

Law 2: Organization Makes a System of Many Appear Fewer
Per Law 1, many nonprofits offer a range of services and information that can be overwhelming to outsiders. We tend to provide customers with information in a menu format that emphasizes the broad range of things we can do. But for most people, this laundry list is confusing and overwhelming. We need to consider how we organize and chunk the information we provide to people (volunteers, donors, employees, constituents) and how we can use organization to make this data easier to manage and understand.

Law 3: Savings in Time Feels Like Simplicity
In our time-challenged society, we yearn for speed. We're impatient with lines and waiting and give our undying loyalty to those organizations that respect and help us manage our time. Several years ago I worked for a nonprofit that said they operated on "government time," which meant that people waited weeks and months for services and information. Disturbingly, this didn't bother them at all. Today, this is no longer acceptable to most people. One of the greatest services we can provide is ways to save customers time.

Law 4: Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler
There's data and information and then there's knowledge. I find that when we're in a system, we tend to forget what it's like to be on the outside. So we use a lot of jargon with customers. Or we provide information without turning it into knowledge. In the workforce development system, state Departments of Labor have vast quantities of data about unemployment rates, numbers of people employed in an occupation, etc. This is available to the various nonprofits that provide employment and training services to job seekers and to businesses. But what is the purpose of this information? How do I turn this into knowledge that makes the information useful to the customers I'm serving? How am I supposed to use the unemployment rate to help a business or a job seeker? This is when information becomes clutter.

Law 5: Simplicity and Complexity Need Each Other
There can be a danger in committing to simplicity that we pare away too much of what we do. We have to seek balance and understand that simplicity helps us make sense of complexity. It shouldn't be a replacement for the complex web of services that are needed as much as a way to help us make sense of things that are complicated.

Law 6: What Lies in the Periphery of Simplicity is Definitely Not Peripheral
Simplicity requires context. In some cases, what we consider unimportant is in fact of central importance to our customers. We can't afford to assume that because to us a service or program or process is peripheral, that it will be the same for the people using it. Often it's the central piece that we've failed to simplify. And by failing to simplify this piece, our other attempts at simplicity fail as well.

Law 7: More Emotions Are Better than Less
Good design is as much about emotion as it is about logic. We have to understand and honor the emotional space of our various customer groups and we need to build this into our processes. As humans, even when we think we're being logical, we are usually having more emotional responses. Understanding and engaging customer emotions will usually lead us to better design of services and procedures.

Law 8: In Simplicity We Trust
It is easier for us to trust something we understand than something we don't. Complexity provides more opportunities for mistrust to develop because it feels less in our control. When we design things to be simple, we build trust.

Law 9: Some Things Can Never Be Made Simple
Social change is never simple. It usually involves broad system changes that are, by their very nature, complex. There are no simple solutions to ending poverty or to fighting AIDS or to saving the environment. Acknowledging this is important. But within that complexity, the service we can provide is to make aspects of it simple to understand. I may not fully understand global warming and how it occurs and all the ramifications. But I can understand simple things I can do to address the problem. It's good to recognize the complexity. But always be seeking to simplify.



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