When less is more

Simplicity builds trust.

At Automattic we’ve been working through some overarching design principles to help guide our work. One of these core principles is that “simplicity builds trust.” Basically, the idea that the more straightforward a task is to do, the more confident a user is in their ability (or the product’s ability) to do it.

For small business owners – who are already overwhelmed with the requirements of their day to day business – simplicity is clearly key. And while the applications from a product design perspective are apparent, it made me think about how the same principle might apply to the way we communicate with users from a marketing perspective. Is less more? Can too much information harm users? I quickly found an example in my dad, who had recently become a small business owner himself.

My dad decided to pursue his dream of designing, building, and running a suite of vacation rental houses. While his ultimate goal is to own a collection of homes to rent out across the country, he is starting small and just finished building his first house last month. 

He still has a full-time job, so finishing that first home meant working every night and 14 hour days on the weekend, driving three hours each way to the site. To add to the stress of working essentially two jobs at once, construction delays pushed back the opening and forced him to miss out on the first half of the summer rental season. 

So what I’m trying to say, is that my dad was just a little stressed out. And also in debt, delayed, and desperate for his business to start making money.

He called me and asked if I would help him get Facebook and Instagram accounts set up for the house because he needed to start renting it out asap. Puzzled, I asked him why he thought he needed to set up those accounts right now. He explained that it was so he could help get people to his house’s website. When I asked him why he thought he needed a website, he explained it was so he could show people photos of the house and then send people to VRBO to actually book the house.

So I repeated back to him that he wanted to set up a social media account to send people to a website with photos to send people to VRBO (with the same photos) to finally actually take the desired action of booking a rental. When I asked him why not just use the VRBO link directly for right now, he exasperatedly replied, “Ashley, I have no idea what I’m doing with this. I am so stupid when it comes to this stuff.”

Let me add the disclaimer that my dad is in no way stupid. He was simply reacting to the bits of data he had picked up along the way about what a business broadly needs to succeed online. So while he had picked up some good information, he genuinely felt he needed to get all of those set up right now before he could start making money. He also completely glossed over the goal he actually wanted to accomplish in favor of checking the boxes he felt he had to check.

Given he had no interest handling bookings through his own website yet, he was simply too early in his business to need the kind of infrastructure he was overwhelming himself with trying to create.

Once his business really grows, he will eventually need a website and perhaps even a social media presence.  But in the spirit of simplicity,  how can we more accurately communicate what users need, don’t need, and when? That way, when they do decide to interact with our products, they experience solved problems, not more problems. 


By ashleyvonclausburg