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Simple designs merit our attention, and effort

Have you seen the Hewlett-Packard Printing Mailbox? It's a basic, receive-only station for email text and photos. It's truly simple in operation: plug it into a telephone jack and a power outlet, switch it on, and it takes it from there. It does its own initialization and setup, periodically “calls in” to see if there are emails, and prints them if there. (The email service and format translation for messages is provided by HP's partner, Presto Services, Inc.)

So, who would want this stripped-down, dumbed-down email setup? It's unlikely that readers of this column would, that's for sure. But HP is hoping that a lot of non-techies, the so-called “grandmother” market, will want it for getting family pictures and messages from their computer-literate younger family members, and so not feel left out of the action. The fact that it operates receive-only is OK for this audience. It might also be handy for unattended situation such as remote job sites, where messages and drawings need to be ready when the work day starts.

I don't know if this product will be a success, of course. But I do admire that HP is at least trying to answer the needs of an audience that doesn't want to a complex, feature-laded, feature-unused product.

There's a lesson for us all here: as processing power becomes common and cheap, we will have these embedded CPUs in all sorts of fairly sophisticated products, as we see already in personal medical devices such as glucose meters for diabetics. These products have to do one thing, do it well, do it with minimal user involvement, and do it without multiple layers of operating menus or soft keys that can take on multiple roles depending on the specific operating mode.

This, in turn, means that marketers need to spend a lot of time focusing on operating essentials that embody the product's primary (and most likely, sole) mission, and resist the urge to add features, add complexity, and add headaches. The engineers who implement the product need to do so as well, and it takes real discipline to maintain that focus. We all know that the tendency to feature-creep is strong, and the opportunities are many.

In the old days, before processors ruled the land, most consumer products were this way. Designing them to do their basic job was hard enough, and lack of any software meant that features were hard-wired, there was usually a dedicated key or knob for each parameter, and users were focused on basic performance, not secondary features. Most products today no longer fit this design template, but a few do. Check out the simple but effective radio receivers from Tivoli Audio designed by the late audio and video legend Henry Kloss, and you'll see some excellent examples.

I know the phrase “less is more” is often tossed around to characterize this type of design. Frankly, I dislike that phrase, because it uses clever word-play to contradict and confuse. But I do believe that, in many cases, while less may not be more , less is indeed often better !

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