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Simplifying Smartly

| On 26, Aug 2010

Jack Hipple

Have you paid attention to some of the new product developments lately and looked for some over-riding trends? Think about Dyson, the i-Phone, and the new electronic book readers from Borders and Barnes and Noble as examples. Dyson is selling vacuum cleaners without bags and fans without blades. Both of these advances eliminate significant parts of engineering systems, and, in theory, minimize parts and maintenance operations. The Apple iPhone eliminated the antenna. And you know what happened next—reception suffered when the antenna, embedded in the frame of the cell phone, was obstructed. Competitive phones began an attack with full page ads describing their “redundant” embedded antennas and Apple had to give away millions of dollars in free cell phone cases to compensate.

What do these examples teach us about “trimming and simplifying”? First of all, this kind of thinking is a great starting point for new product breakthroughs and business concepts. In this context, think about how Amazon has virtually eliminated the book store and book readers have eliminated paper and book marks.

Arbitrarily get rid of a part of a system–preferably one that has significant cost or inconvenience to the user. Then figure out how to get back the “function” that this now eliminated part was performing with the elements in the system that are left. But we can’t stop there! We need to think about what might make this new design “go wrong” or not function properly. The antenna could get covered up…what if the dust (without a bag to catch) got into the motor? What if the sunlight interferes with the electronic book reader on the beach? What if sand gets on the screen? Challenge the simplified design and ask yourself how you could make it fail! What could you do in the way of simple redundancy that could make the new system cheaper, simpler, and more robust?

The lesson is not to simplify without also asking the question of what negative things could come out of the design change. Without doing both, you’re taking an unnecessary risk.