Monday, May 23, 2005

The Simple Things

Alain Senderens, the chef at Lucas Carton in Paris, announced this week that, after 28 years of holding onto his 3 Michelin stars, he's going to hand them back and concentrate on a simpler cuisine, slashing prices by perhaps two-thirds. When I lived in Paris I had the good fortune to eat at Lucas Carton several times, each of which was a monumental feast. The odd thing is that the dinner was, for the customer, entirely simple: you go on, sit down and then everything comes to you. Simply pick the tasting menu and glasses of wine with perfectly matched food arrive throughout the evening until you can hold no more. I say "wine matched with food" because that's the way the menu was structured. Now he appears to be making it easy for him, the supplier, as well as for the customer. Vodafone is launching a range of stripped-down, no frills phones - simple phones. They'll do voice calls and text only - no camera, no bluetooth, no gadgets. The idea is to lure in customers who think that today's phones are too complicated. I'm not sure I believe that anyone wants to be labelled "too thick to use a cellphone" but Vodafone insist there's a market. The more comfortable people are with their phone, the more calls they'll make and the more texts they'll send - and so Vodafone achieves growth in an otherwise saturated market. I can see the tag line: "simple phones for simple people" Mobile phone games are getting simpler. They're relying on an interface that can be controlled by a single thumb. The simpler the interface, the more people will use it and so the more will be sold, making more money. The counter-theory is that people are getting simpler and so need to use fewer digits to control a game. My old friend (is that too strong a word?) Dan is getting in on the act too. He says that life is simpler if you only have 3 types of pasta in your cupboard. He's found a supplier who, pleasingly, numbers their goods for him so he has only to pick up No 9, 18 and 27 whenever he's shopping. So is e-government following the trend and getting simpler? Simple enough so that more people will use it? Simple for the customer as well as simple for the supplier? Perhaps not. I observed as much in my "Stop. Rewind. Play" piece a week or so ago. An interesting comment posted to that said:
Absolutely - couldn't agree more. And surely the virtual structure concerned is Directgov, where departmental silos (at least from the user perspective) are replaced with common sense categories and roles? While the site isn't quite there yet, it's also on track to become the kind of 'giveandtake.gov.uk' you envisaged (check out the Money franchise, say).
I almost agreed, right off the bat. But I thought some more and it occurred to me that directgov, whilst a great improvement on what went before, is the equivalent of giving someone an instruction manual, at least written in plain English, for their horribly complicated mobile phone. The phone still has too many buttons, odd shortcuts and sub-menus, long key sequences and hidden menus - even if all you want to do is make a call. Simple government, as the Prime Minister declared he would provide in his party conference speech in 1997, means both changing the customer experience and changing the supplier side. Simple government is cheap to use and cheap to adminster. Directgov is making it cheaper to use, although it's not delivered transactional government yet - joining up benefits, say, along the lines of my giveandtake.gov idea. For really simple government ("RSG?") to arrive, the drawbridges have to be lowered between the towering fortresses that are government departments, data sharing principles will have to be simplified and re-established, identifiers will have to be joined up (not made unique, in an ID sense of the word) and processes will have to be rationalised and made more consistent and, perhaps even, common. If this government wants to throw away its 3 Michelin stars - which, after all, require delivering complicated things in a specific order with vast numbers of staff to support the process - and concentrate on simpler fare, I don't think too many people would have a problem. Simpler for the supplier, simpler for the customer. Everyone wins.

3 comments:

  1. Old? Too strong a word! Friend? I'd hope not.

    Get yourself some stylesheets. I noticed after I thought the page had fully loaded (I was way into reading the content) that there were 240 items still to load. Every one of them loaded separately, even though they should have all been the same image - the icon next to each of your previous posts.

    The Dgov/cell phone manual analogy is quite a good one. At the end of the day, you still have to use the same old back-end to do what you need to. It merely provides an explanation of how to use the back-end.

    I've always thought that Michelin stars are overrated - perhaps it's time for the government to shed them...

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  2. P_SW113:08 pm

    You are confusing design simplicity with user IQ, they are not inversely proportional. If it was, geeks would rule the world.

    Good design principles remove the irelevant, misleading or ambiguous - E.R.Tufte writes clearly on these points for systems folk.

    Complicated processes, design, systems and communications inhibit take-up.

    Why put a handle on a door you have to push open? Bad design decisions offend and just annoy.

    Why build a phone that breaks your foot when you drop it with a power consumption to keep the Grid humming?

    Design a system for those of us who don't want to have relationship with our Govt, that is easy, fast and clear to use.

    Or is that too hard for the geeks to design with their swiss army knife, Leatherman & Treo ?

    Less is definately more

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  3. David1:43 pm

    I have an increasing number of friends who cannot use the latest generation of phones due to the fact that they cannot read the screen.
    Hence, they move the sim card into an old phone everytime that their provider insisits on upgrading them.

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