The power of simplicity - and the complexity of achieving it

“The Power of simplicity” — you will hear this phrase more and more often in Macroscop’s developers’ room during their planning sessions. Nowadays, we are focused like never before on our product’s simplicity. This includes not only developing the features demanded by our end-users but also eliminating the features that are almost never used. 

Surprisingly enough, it is very difficult to make a product simple for end-users. We realized this based on our own experience, when we were faced with questions which we could not find simple answers:

  • What is more important: simplicity or functionality?
  • To what extent can we and should we simplify our product?
  • Whom to focus on while making changes?

Easy is hard

Naturally, it was always clear to us that our product should be easy for the end-user to operate. It’s simply common sense. Also, it has been confirmed by many successful companies in a lot of different areas many times before.

For example, look at Dropbox. Our CEO Artem Razumkov once talked to one of the creators of this service. He said that an idea of storing files in a cloud has been known for a long time before. In order to place a file into a cloud it was necessary to push a button once only – in order to download the file. What they came up with is just a transition from pushing one button to zero. The end-user simply places a file into a folder and it is loaded into a cloud automatically. You don’t need to press "Upload"! This simple idea of pressing one button to zero is a transition that allowed them to rise to incredible heights. That is the power of simplicity!

Or Uber. Why has it become so popular? Maybe because it is very simple for end-users: you don’t have to call and tell an operator where you are and where you intend to go, count your cash, give it to a taxi driver and struggle to get your change back. All you have to do is to push a button once, and here comes your car. What could be simpler and more convenient than this?!

In this case, why are all products not like Uber? It’s a fact that it is difficult to make it simple. Some people think that simplicity is easy for everyone. But, in fact, it is simple only for end-users, while it is very difficult for developers.

Let’s take Google as an example. For end-users Google is a one search line. It is very simple. But in order for an end-user to get what he wants in response to entering just one simple line, thousands of engineers, designers and researchers are working hard to achieve this. Alternatively, an end-user would have to enter a lot of different settings and filters which would specify his search, but Google engineers have taken this task upon themselves. In order to make it so simple for end-users, they have implemented an extremely sophisticated technology, which makes certain assumptions and understands what the search preferences may imply. 


How do we make our product simple

It is difficult to make it simple. It is practically impossible to develop it simple from the very beginning. That is why, more often than not, in order to develop something simple for end-users, you have to create a new product to begin with and simplify it later. Creating a simple, and at the same time convenient product from scratch is rather problematic.

Our own recipe for the creation of new products, as well as the simplification of existing ones, includes the same most important component – it must be based on past end-user experience!

In one of our previous posts, we talked about how to create a new video analysis module – the Suspect tracking technology. It allows you to track a subject’s pathway though several video cameras within the system. Initially, when an idea to create the Suspect tracking occurred to us, we did not think about convenience for end-users. All we wanted to do at this stage was to RELEASE a new feature that many developers would want. Initially, Suspect tracking was one of the search filters.

Initially, Suspect tracking was one of Macroscop’s search filters. At the outset, Macroscop allowed you to search by size, features, object position within the frame and ... to perform inter-camera tracking. Of course, it was illogical and inconvenient for an end-user. In order to activate this inter-camera or Suspect tracking function, it was necessary to complete an incredible number of steps. First, it was necessary to find a subject whose path you were going to build. In order to do that you had to specify the features, color a pattern, and find it in an archive. Then you had to enable the inter-camera tracking mode on one of the results. After that you had to place patterns there manually, one by one. Overall, it was a very long, tedious, and inconvenient way for end-users. That wasn’t the way they expected it to be. What they needed was to see a subject on a screen and be able to build its pathway right away without the necessity of specifying special features and coloring patterns.

When we realized this and made a decision to focus on usability and simplicity, we formulated our goal: 7 out of 10 people who had not used the inter-camera tracking function previously and are not professional users of video surveillance systems, but they know how to work on a computer, should be able to build a subject’s pathway without special instructions on our end. We went through a few stages of improvement. After each stage, we invited 10 different people, put them in front of computers, and asked them to solve this task. When 7 out of 10 users involved were able to build a pathway on their own without any help, we concluded that we had managed to create a really convenient Suspect tracking module for end-users.

Macroscop Suspect tracking

In the latest version of Suspect tracking module you can simply push a "track" button when the subject you need to track appears on your screen

Nowadays, direct communication with end-users is an integral part of our development process. Developers get in touch and meet with video systems users regularly and test their recent developments with them. Even before they start developing anything new they have to communicate with at least 5 end-users and get a clear understanding of what functionality they are looking for and what they would like to have.

 

Such a different simplicity

How to preserve a balance between simplicity and functionality? How to avoid breaking away from reality and not to getting rid of something really useful and irreplaceable? To what extent is it possible to simplify? For most consumer products, there are no guidelines for that. However, it is clear that there is a huge difference between consumer and professional products. They are two different things. It is necessary to take a different approach in designing them. It is true that when somebody wants to grab a taxi, it is great to be able to do it with a single push of a button. However, using this approach for a person who works with a professional security system cannot be considered seriously.

For business products such as video surveillance software, simplifying has two sides. It is necessary to find the right balance between simplicity and functionality. This double-sidedness came into play with our simplification of the inter-camera tracking function. We created a simple interface which allowed untrained people to be able to build a pathway. We developed special tips for this feature. When professional users of security systems tested a newly developed inter-camera or Suspect tracking, they said that they did not need these “fancy tips”. They got in their way.

Maybe we made a mistake by inviting regular people from the streets and not professionals for testing. On one hand, video analysis is a highly specialized task, used predominately by professionals. On the other hand, we believe that Suspect tracking is a solution which will be able to radically change working with archives for everybody, not only professionals. Here is a contradiction: on one hand, we clearly understand now that Suspect tracking is predominately used by professionals and we have to focus on their needs. On the other hand, we believe that this function will be able to change the very approach to working with archives for ALL END-USERS.

There is no the one and only answer for the simplicity limits question. There is no one and only recipe. Otherwise, everybody would be using it.

 

How to combine the incombinable? – Separate it!

If it is necessary to simplify and give up a certain functionality, you can separate products instead.

Once one of our key business partners requested a revision for Macroscop’s software for a very large and important project. It was necessary to develop a video chat for video system operators. When we started working on this function we realized that it was a very specific task. More than likely, 99% of our end-users do not need it. At this point, for the first time, we started thinking about dividing our software into two different products.  One product should focus on simplicity and be used by the majority of our end-users. Another product should become a specialized one, with the focus on functionality, and be used in complex and large-scale video systems.

We came to the conclusion that this separation could be a good approach to finding the right balance between simplicity and functionality. A few months ago, we released a product for large-scale video systems which is called ‘Ultra’, and decided to remove part of its existing functionality from the "Macroscop” version.

 

There is NO single solution

Simplicity in designing our products is an open issue. We could not find the one and only right approach to answering such contradictory questions like "To what extent can we simplify?", "How to remain a functional and useful product while simplifying?" and "What audience to target while simplifying?” Maybe that is because they don’t exist. Each software manufacturer makes their own decision. Nevertheless, today we can put together a few ideas in this respect:

1. Eliminate all rarely used product features. Most importantly, this decision should be based on direct feedback from end-users.

2. Leave all functionality in place and work on interface aiming to get the desired by end-users results by pushing one button only. However, bear in mind that it is practically impossible to achieve this goal.

3. Divide the product into several versions, aiming to solve different tasks and being used by different end-user groups.

 

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