For Scale Up month at TechSPARK, our friends at Unfold is sharing their thoughts on what a disruptive strategy looks like for Scale Ups, check it out!

As businesses grow, what once was a bare-bones, hot-off-the-press business idea can transform into something much bigger and more complex. New features fuelled by trends and user demands can encroach on usability, damaging your product’s chances of success. We see this happen time and time again. So here’s our strategy for escaping over-complexity and taking back control of your scale-up.

 

Why complexity fails

 

If you’re a founder or product manager working in the midst of a scale-up, you’ll know what it feels like to battle with complexity on a daily basis. As humans, we like to add complexity. We enjoy nick-nacks and the mechanics of new, flashy features. We think adding new details is a way of differentiating, proving our prowess and refreshing and improving our products. 

This may sound like a sensible strategy, but eventually you will start to subtly damage your customers' experience through overwhelming complexity. No one sets out to make things complicated, of course, but a little “add here” and “add there” and before you know it, you’ve created a monster. The truth is that the more features you let in, the harder it becomes to focus on what’s really of value to your customers. And if you don’t clean up your act quick enough, someone with a simpler, more user-centre offering will steal everyone’s hearts. 

You don’t have to look far to see this playing out in the real world. The iPhone for example; replacing point & shoot cameras by making high-quality photos accessible at just a tap, with simple settings and on a lightweight device. Or Uber, disrupting a service industry by drastically simplifying the way we search, find and hail taxis. Simplicity is an incredibly disruptive business strategy.

 

Complexity breaks users

 

Consumers and stakeholders will always ask for more and more features. Who doesn’t want more right? It sounds great. But just like that extra slice of chocolate cake, the things we want the most aren’t always what’s best for us.

Credit: Dilbert

When things fall apart, it tends to be at the most inconvenient times. 

A case-in-point example are touch-controlled headphones. They look great and on the surface of it, consumers love the idea because real, clickable buttons are *so* 2012.  But these products aren’t reliable when we need them to be. In potentially stressful situations eg. when out jogging in public, when the phone rings or even just taking them out of one’s ears, the added complexity of dealing with a new interface means users end up skipping songs, hanging up the phone accidentally or turning off the headphones entirely, just when you need them not to. 

This design-flaw makes what are potentially already stressful situations much more so. These interactions merely frustrate users, making them wish they’d stuck with the old, simple model and damaging their opinion of your brand. 

So how do I maintain simplicity whilst keeping the user in mind?

 

1. Align everyone around the user/customer 

Well - in a sentence, you need to focus on achieving elegant simplicity by aligning everyone around the user.

Great design is about capturing and containing simplicity (elegant) not stripping it back to a point where it no longer provides value (simplicistic).

In order to achieve this you have to align your whole team (not just the design or product teams) around the user. By making everyone aware of the users’ needs and why decisions are being made, everyone can contribute, will be focused on the right thing and user-centred outcomes will be much easier to achieve.

 The easiest way of bringing this change to your organisation is building in process to expose all business functions to users on a regular basis - this can be as simple as showing the results/highlights from user interviews, tests or focus groups in a meeting to ensure everyone gets a chance to review and feedback on customer actions. You’ll be amazed what discussions and changes can be made as a result

2. Do ONE thing well

As the old adage goes, don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none. By focusing on building the business around a single, well defined purpose you reduce the risk of diluting your proposition over time.

When it comes to designing and building new features you’ll waste much less time creating things that don’t work or that your users don’t want. Thorough testing with your user base at each stage of evaluating a potential feature will help to validate whether the feature actually provides value, or whether it will simply introduce unwarranted complexity.

3. Use the power of the prototype

Every business should consider themselves and their product a prototype in perpetuity - always experimenting and developing your offering (standing still is the equivalent of going backwards). And whilst very early-stage startups will be using prototypes from sketches, right through to digital prototypes and building MVPs, the mentality should be no different for larger organisations. 

Prototyping and testing new ideas with users before jumping in and shipping them brings several vital benefits for scale-ups too:

Learn and iterate faster: In a world where whoever can learn the most, the fastest, wins, prototyping is an essential tool for retaining and extending competitive advantage. It allows us to test ideas quickly and at pace.

More cost effective: The faster we fail (or notice our mistakes) the quicker those mistakes are to fix and the less money/resource we waste. As your business scales, you have to maintain and work with all the legacy features you built early on, so make sure they’re providing value.

The user guides your direction: As designers it can be so tempting to project your own assumptions and ideas about how a product should work. Prototyping allows you to keep focussed on the user, letting them guide the direction of the product by rapidly iterating on what does and doesn’t work for them.

If you’re interested in prototyping, you can check out our in depth guide to prototyping here. 

Simplicity is a disruptive strategy, but sometimes it takes radical change to bring about radical results:

Breaking-free from the traditional, steady route can seem daunting in itself, even more so if the development involves a complete overhaul of your digital presence and the rejection of features you’ve already put time and effort into. 

Unfortunately, however, in the current digital world, it is more important than ever to keep users at the centre of everything you do. If you don’t create your products for them, then you’ll quickly lose out to companies who do.

That means that the decision to remove features, or completely redesign aspects of your product are sometimes required to unlock the growth you’re pursuing. You will always upset some people when you do this, that’s natural – but if you trust and follow the right process you’ll delight a much larger number of people you scale.

We hope you’ve found this article informative. We’re Unfold, a Bristol-based UX and digital development agency. We work with scale-up clients every week and see these issues come up time and time again. We hope this guidance goes some way to helping you avoid these pitfalls on your scale-up ventures.

Author:

Harry Cobbold is Managing Director at Unfold, a Bristol-based UX and digital development agency. Harry has lead numerous award-winning teams, delivering digital experiences that bring businesses closer to their users and drive better results. At Unfold he helps ambitious start-ups and scale-ups accelerate their business by simplifying their user experience and creating marketing-leading digital platforms.