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Don't Strategize, Empathize (07 Sep 2005)
"Who designs these things?"
We've all asked the question. Usually, it's as we're struggling with impenetrable packaging or trying in vain to turn off the mysteriously blaring burglar alarm.

Countless products, instructions and services are made more difficult than necessary because real-world considerations were overlooked. The more luxurious your car, the more likely it is that the owner's manual will fill your entire glove compartment and you still won't be able to reset the clock. Despite much time, money and attention having been paid to the design of your owner's manual, the circumstance of its use got short shrift.

The "design in a vacuum" phenomenon also explains how microscopic instructions have evolved on medications. Over-the-counter medications now have labels that wrap around the bottle and unfurl to reveal a wealth of information. Although marvels of printing technology, these scrolls have type so small that even those in the best of health couldn't possibly read them.

Every day, throughout corporate America, task forces are formed to examine processes, streamline interfaces and redesign documents with an eye towards "simplifying" them. I know since I have worked as a Simplification expert for the past twenty years tackling complexity in financial services, telecommunications, and health care. Why then does complexity still abound whether you are booking a flight, buying a vacuum or calling a bank? Why is it so rare for a product or service to be launched with simplicity baked into it? Why is it always a case of retrofitting?

I maintain the missing ingredient is an unlikely one—empathy. Companies tackle simplification as a science rather than as an art. They measure the length of customer service calls down to hundredths of a second, run readability formulas counting syllables and monitor mouse-clicks by the millions. Afraid to let common sense prevail, companies rely on numbers to judge clarity and usefulness—two attributes that defy quantification. As a result, companies send out documents that they tout as being written at a sixth-grade reading level when in fact no college-educated person understands them.
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