“Making something simple is not easy.”

This bit of wisdom came from one of our developers at FatStax, as we are considering which features to add with each new development version with our app for field sales. There’s a tradeoff between building in more features and capabilities and keeping it simple for users. Client wishlists and what we hear from the marketplace feed the to-do list of features. There is no lack of ideas.

How Important is That?

For example, one of our sales clients recommended that we add the capability to attach PDF sales brochures to the emails sent to customers from FatStax. Not a bad idea (but there is no lack of ideas). “How important is that?” is the key question.

Attaching PDF files to the email will add another step, increase the size and impact delivery speed, and have a greater chance of getting caught up in spam filters. And email recipients don’t mind clicking a link to download information they requested. You can accomplish 90% of your goal of getting the sales material into the hands of the customer by including a link to the PDF clearly indicating what it is and how to download it. So, again, “how important is that?”

It tumbled down the list of priorities with that client.

Simple-to-Use Apps

We are big proponents of simple-to-use, especially when it comes to developing tools for field sales. Personally, we are passionate about difficult-to-use software and interfaces. And that’s not in-a-good-way passion, either. Simple-to-use means your adrenaline doesn’t shoot up with dread everytime you need to interact with it. It means that if you forgot how to do something, the interface doesn’t make you feel stupid. It’s easy to recall the how to in a few seconds.

From a practical standpoint, simple also makes sense. Reducing training time for salespeople and increasing productivity impact sales and profits. Think of the lost opportunity if the sales force won’t use what you developed or purchased because it’s too much of a hassle.

Cut Down the List from Possible

As a decision-maker evaluating software tools for sales, the more capabilities the better, right? That’s just putting off the inevitable decisions about what exactly needs to be implemented and what the expectations are for use. There is always a trade-off so what is not going to get done because you expect sales to use the new system you purchased?

Where do you draw the line when there are so many cool features you can include or buy (with add-on modules)? As a developer, how do you distill it down into a user interface that is fast to understand? I had an English composition teacher that used to give us an exercise to cut one-third of the words out of our essays on the second draft. Wow, that’s tough but so worth it. Every word and letter counts then.

We are big admirers of 37 Signals and Wufoo and other companies that work really hard so that we “get’ their software fast and get productive within minutes.

4 Guidelines We Use

1. Distill the to do list.
Everyone gets their say about what to include but focus on users and usability first. Don’t just add items and capabilities because it’s technically feasible.

2. Challenge the suggesters.
You want to keep the ideas coming, but there better be a practical reason to include a feature or capability that will significantly impact sales productivity. Having more information available for field sales reps is not a legitimate reason. It has to be the right information.

3. Don’t be afraid of white space.
A corollary of point one. Just because you have space on a page or site doesn’t mean that you have to fill it with something. Less clutter is better.

4. Set up your process to iterate.
You are not going to be perfect and you are not going to get everything right the first time. Recognize that, be stingy and smart with the features. Seek out user feedback so that you can see how it is being used in the field. Then, apply all the rules again.

Woodrow Wilson said that preparation for a 10 minute speech would take a week while he needed little if any preparation for an hour speech.

Making something simple takes longer too. It takes a lot more effort to simplify an app, a web page, sales processes, or sales plans.

We welcome any comment or examples of simplicity when using apps or websites, for field sales or other business tasks. There are a lot of great ones out there but we are always looking to learn about more.