Easy Is Hard because Easy Is Invisible

I’m sure many of you have heard of the expression “easy is hard.” What does it mean? Well, it refers to the fact that it’s hard to make something easy. That makes sense intuitively, because it truly does take a lot of smart, focused thinking and good design, to make something truly easy. Would you agree?

Of all the companies and products out there, I think the Apple iPhone best captures the concept that to be “Easy is Hard.” As a hardcore Apple fan, I can confidently declare that the iPhone is truly the world’s easiest to use smartphone and that it was the FIRST easy-to-use smartphone ever created. (Remember the slew of “smart” phones in 2006 and prior? They were all disasters!) In any case, now that we’ve had some time to reflect, and with the benefit of hindsight, I think we can all agree that the iPhone is fundamentally successful today because of one core principle: it is easy to use. Sure, the iPhone is beautifully designed, and with each new model every Fall, it’s undeniably sexy. And it’s fast and powerful with lots of great features. But in the end, it’s the easy-to-use aspect of the iPhone that has made it the powerhouse it is today. Steve Jobs fundamentally understood that easy is the ultimate goal to aspire to. Apple’s product culture is built around making complex technologies easy. Look at every single Apple product. What’s the common distinguishing feature? It’s easier to use than the competition. And as a company, Apple understands that easy is hard. That is Apple’s moat, and that’s how it separates itself from the competition. When easy is hard, Apple can command a $2 trillion market valuation. In one word, I would say that “easy” is the secret to Apple’s success.

So next, what do I mean by “Easy is invisible?”

Well, I know it’s a weird phrase, to say that easy is invisible. It’s actually my answer to the question, “Why is making things easy so hard to pull off?” I would answer it this way: “Easy” is itself such a simple and plain topic that for all intents and purposes, people just forget about it. It’s often ignored, often thought to be unachievable (because I have a deep suspicion that engineers fundamentally want to make things complicated; and I’m guilty of it too), and most importantly, “easy” is often just overlooked, because it’s invisible. What I mean is that “easy” is so boring and so plain that it’s practically invisible. It’s just not sexy! People much prefer to make things that are fast, powerful, well-designed, and with lots of great features. Traditionally, those are the things that are sexy. 

Easy is boring, to the point that it’s invisible and people forget about it -- meaning: they forget about the importance of the need to be easy! That’s why smartphones prior to the iPhone in 2007 were a mess of complexity. I had the unfortunate experience of buying a Motorola ROKR phone in December 2006, and it was a true disaster in usability. With the benefit of hindsight, the BlackBerry devices in the early 2000’s weren’t much better either. 

Looking back at my own tech gadget history, the first 15 years of the PDA/smartphone evolution was just a bunch of missteps and going in circles until the iPhone was launched in 2007. The modern PDA (that’s Personal Digital Assistant, for those of you too young to know the term) was the Apple Newton. Even though it was made by Apple, it wasn’t quite easy enough for mass market adoption. I got my first Newton in 1994, the MessagePad 110, and it was awesome! (Prior to that, my tech gadgets consisted of Casio “smart” watches called the DataBank, of which I owned several over the years.) After the Newton MessagePad, the PalmPilot came out in 1996, and that was truly refreshing. The PalmPilot did make things much easier; it was also faster and sleeker. And then the dark years of the smartphones, where I used several of the Palm Treo devices, until finally, the iPhone. By listing all these devices, my point is that even I didn’t realize that easy was important. I was the classic geek that was happy with all things hi-tech; the more features and bells and whistles, the better!

When the iPhone launched, of course I liked it. It had even more bells and whistles, and it also had a cherry on top: the nice sexy design. But what I missed at the time was that the iPhone was truly easy. In hindsight, the killer feature of the iPhone was being easy to use. Remember all of the complaints from the reviewers of the first iPhone? The two loudest criticisms were the lack of a hardware keyboard and the lack of copy and paste functionality. Apple went to great lengths to explain itself, yet people still snubbed the iPhone for many years. Yet, in the subsequent years, something miraculous happened: more and more people started buying the iPhone. And these weren’t the geeks and nerds who bought the Palm Treo and BlackBerry devices like I did. These were everyday regular people, who didn’t mind not having a hardware keyboard or copy and paste functionality until years later. What happened and why? Easy was invisible.

The “easiness” of the iPhone was practically invisible to everyone in 2007 and 2008. Sure, many people did actually point out that the iPhone was very easy, but that was far from the collective industry mindshare. What I mean is two things: (1) the reviewers and naysayers kept harping on the disadvantages and brokenness of the iPhone, and failed to see the critical point that the iPhone was easier to use by an order of magnitude than all other smartphones, and (2) the competition didn’t realize it either: the “Easy” functionality of the iPhone was somehow invisible and not a single competitor saw it, and thus none of them went after Easy. They all pursued things like faster, better, cheaper, and more features. What happened to Easy? It got lost in the shuffle for the competitors. But not for Apple!

Easy is Hard. 

And part of the reason is that easy is invisible to everyone. People forget about it. Customers don’t demand it explicitly. Most surprisingly, the competition just somehow all forgot to focus on easy. What a shame!

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