Empathy -- a long example -- four paragraphs.
Empathy is the only way to truly shorten the distance between an organization providing services and the individual receiving them. Cleveland Clinic (a client, in the mid-90s, of the brand-strategy firm where we work) understands that empathizing with patients is critical, so it doesn't just focus on simplifying medical care but looks at everything the patient experiences: smells, sounds, greetings, hospital gowns, security and appointment scheduling. It wasn't until staff members were wheeled through hallways lying in hospital beds that they realized how disconcerting and dizzying that experience can be. Preparing patients for the "thrill" ride is a simple gesture that allays fears.
The clinic's guiding principle—patients first—is used as a mantra by chief executive Toby Cosgrove, who weaves patient experience stories into all of his presentations. Everyone at the hospital, regardless of his or her job, is called a "caregiver." Through this simple change in vocabulary, Cleveland Clinic is able to send an important signal to everyone in the organization about what's expected.
What makes the biggest impression on people during their stay in a hospital? As Cleveland Clinic learned, it's the small details: how long it takes a nurse to answer the call bell, the availability of food on request, whether staff members follow the "10-4" rule ("when 10 feet away from a patient, smile and make eye contact; when 4 feet away, address the patient").
Borrowing from the hospitality industry, Cleveland Clinic has even paid attention to the scent in the air. No antiseptic aroma; the air smells like a signature fragrance favored by four-star hotel chains. Everything from the way doctors talk to patients (in plain English, and with a willingness to answer questions until there are none left), to the hospital gowns (designed by Diane von Furstenberg to combine ease of access with a touch of dignity), to the clear, concise bills you receive after checking out reflects a commitment to simplifying the interaction between a human being and a large, complex medical establishment. The hospital has achieved simplicity through the elimination of "hassles" and the addition of clearer, more human communication.
Distillation. If Cleveland Clinic appeals to the emotional side of our brains to provide a simple, soothing experience, the supermarket chain Trader Joe's tries to simplify rational choice. The company's long-standing goal is to reduce the grocery-shopping experience to a few manageable decisions. Trader Joe's figured out that trying to give people everything is a lousy business model: It overwhelms customers, clutters stores and undermines the shopping experience, causing some customers to default to "no" since they can't make up their minds. On top of that, it is inefficient for handling inventory.
Trader Joe's offers many fewer products than other supermarkets (about 4,000 items instead of 40,000, according to Peter Sealey of the Sausalito Group). Limiting variety doesn't mean bland selections, however; the company does extensive research on its customer base to make smart choices on behalf of the people who shop there, mixing in some exotic food choices and using playful, quirky packaging. Shoppers are thus spared the aggravation of having to sort through dozens of options for jam or mustard or frozen foods.
Does it work? The chain, which has about 350 stores in the U.S., sells an estimated $1,750 in merchandise per square foot, according to Fortune magazine in 2010, more than double the sales generated per square foot by Whole Foods Market.
Clarifying. Making the prose easy to understand is illustrated by labels on medicine.
Sometimes simplicity can be a matter of life and death. A decade ago, worried that confusing prescription labels threatened the health of her grandparents, Deborah Adler decided to do something about it. A graphic designer, she took on this challenge for her master's thesis. Rearranging the small type on the typical prescription label, Ms. Adler put the information in a logical order, giving prominence to the things that people most need to know at the moment they are reaching for their medicine. She divided the label into two parts, separated by a thick black line, and placed the critical information, such as the name and dosage of the medication, at the top, with everything else relegated to the bottom.
Ms. Adler next considered the shape of the bottles. The wraparound labels on conventional round bottles were difficult to read, so she designed a flat tube-shaped container that stood upright on its cap, with plenty of room for a large, flat label that could be read easily at a glance. Also, by color-coding the bottles, she made it possible for family members to distinguish among their individual medications. Her simpler, clearer drug packaging has been adopted by Target pharmacies nationwide.
Smart companies test product information by finding out how customers perceive it and how much of it the customers actually comprehend. Measuring perception alone can be misleading because people are often reluctant to confess their confusion. They view it as a personal failing rather than as a flaw in the information. Measuring their ability to perform tasks based on the information is a more reliable indicator of its clarity and precision.
This type of testing can be conducted quickly and cheaply with online panels of consumers. For example, testing a notice from the Internal Revenue Service (a current client of ours), a taxpayer might be asked how much they would pay in penalties and interest if they missed a deadline, revealing their actual understanding of the consequences of their actions, not just their impression of the tone and clarity of the notice. Similarly, patients can be asked what dosage of medication to take and when so that we don't have to guess whether they truly understand the package directions.
In summary, simplicity may sound like a narrow standard, but it can help companies, governments and every other sort of organization winnow down unnecessary choices and clarify their messages to consumers, clients and citizens. We may not quite be able to re-create Thoreau's calm life on Walden Pond, but it is always possible to drive improvement by simplifying.