The art of Simplicity

Today, digital technology enables us to deliver a huge amount of functionalities to all users. However, we are proven time after time that the basic principle of simplicity is very relevant, probably more than ever. Borja de Muller emphasizes the need to find the “just enough” point when exploring what we should offer the users.

As the celebrated American graphic designer Milton Glaser put it a long time ago: “Less isn’t more; just enough is more”. This is what differentiates experiences. This is what differentiates effective communication and marketing. This is what differentiates resource planning. And so it goes in many other dimensions.

Often we hear the importance of “seamless experiences”, “personalization”, “user-centricity”, “new features or functionalities providing a competitive edge”. This is all very relevant, but it is pointless if it is not assessed in the context of simplicity.

Clear of clutter

Typically, adding functionality adds complexity. A careful cost-benefit assessment should be carried out in the form of user tests before getting carried away by the novelty of such functionality. An example of how this is performed (and one that we probably encounter daily) is Google’s homepage. Despite of the complexity behind its search algorithm, and despite the many functionalities that Google provides through its ever-growing product portfolio, its main insignia and gate-away (its homepage) is still clear of any clutter: it is simple. It has “just enough”, and of course, it is very relevant for users. Achieving such simplicity in the delivery of a service is not simple.

There are many examples of the importance of simplicity in design. When looking at its impact vis-à-vis data you always need to have the end user in mind.

At the end of the day, data must be a core enabler to find the balance of the “just enough” in every single touch point we have with the user. Showing a person everything he or she may need or want is not easy to do (specially in a limited space and limited time), and for sure impossible for the user to assimilate.

Knowledge is key

However, if we know more about that user, we know about why he or she is currently using our systems, we have much better chances to be effective on that communication. We have to get that “just enough” point. And companies have to understand that data is the great enabler for that. Achieving such effective engagement with our user will in turn open up many other possibilities.

Data is often regarded as an enabler to add more and better functionality to our products, or display ever more information. However, I believe that the exact opposite view is much more effective.

Data should be leverage to enhance simplicity. Each one of us is best placed to think through how that applies to their business or occupation. Let me give you a couple examples in classifieds:

  • Why should I select a category for an item I am trying to sell? Data and depp learning architectures allow for accurate picture recognition.
  • Why should I search for the relevant content in the platform? Data allows ever-improving accuracy in recommendation algorithms.

Of course, these are only two examples that allow huge simplifications in the way we deliver our service. These technologies, enabled by large processing of data, allow for many other use cases from computer vision to medical diagnosis. And, at the end of the day, it allows to make the delivery of many services simpler. The ones who understand this best and are able to implement it effectively into their areas will be the ones who will succeed and gain the user. In a digital world, this is the final game.

Designing the UX way

Hiding complexity or at the very least making what is complex more understandable is a cornerstone of good User Experience (UX). Lidia Oshlyansky, Head of User Experience, Schibsted Products and Technology, shares the striving for achieving simplicity.

The links between perceived usability, beauty and simplicity have been made by researchers for many years now. Before user experience became a profession and human-computer interaction became a field of study, other areas, such as psychology, were already looking at how object placement, object relationships and similarity could affect our perceptions. For example, Gestalt principles speak of how we try to simplify complexity by using cues such as proximity, continuity, similarity, closure, figure and ground.

Beyond psychology we have learned and borrowed from many other disciplines, as well as growing a field of study and practice, to help us create user experiences that are simple, beautiful, engaging, usable, useful and maybe even a little fun.

Researching and testing

That’s all well and good you say, but how do you actually do it? It’s not magic; by researching and testing our ideas early and often and from there iterating our designs we aim to hit the sweet spot of user experience for our audience.

To give a concrete example, we’ve been developing a reporting tool for our Ad Operations teams. They have current tools in place. These tools are fairly difficult to master, often don’t work as well as we’d like (it can take hours to produce a single report) and are often more complex than they need to be for their most common use.

We set out to try to address this issue for our end users. We first went to see how their existing tools worked and what types of reports were most often produced. From this research we developed some ideas for a minimum viable product – one that would address the most common use of the reporting tool.


We quickly prototyped this tool and took it back to the users to test. We listened to their feedback and requests. We quickly fixed anything we could. Requested features that would take longer to develop were added to our to do lists for future releases or iterations of the tool.

We gave the tool to users so that they could use it in their day to day work while we continued to add features and changes from our to do list.

Once we had made enough changes to make the tool even better we went back to the users again to test and see how the newest additions to the reporting tool were working for them. We again gathered their feedback and requests so we could make any quick changes or needed fixes and again create a new to do list for anything that would require more time to address.

A product suited for purpose

In this way we’re able to create a product that is simple and right for the users. They provide us the much needed input on their needs, goals and the problems they would like to have us solve. They also help us understand how they will use our products in their day to day work. We in turn can design and engineer for those needs. What happens as an end result is a product that is suited for purpose, simple to use and even increases productivity (no more waiting an hour for a report).

External users

The process described is used whether you design for an internal or external users. With external users things like our branding become more paramount and the styling, visual design and of course communication style must be closely aligned across the product. Of course, internal tools should be wonderful to use, but external tools may depend on their user experience being truly wonderful to be commercially successful. In the case of designing for external users things like engagement and the user’s emotional response to the product become even more critical.

Data as the foundation of ecosystems

The mission is clear – Schibsted is creating a digital ecosystem to connect data from different platforms and companies. But how does it really work? Adam Kinney, Head of Schibsted Data Science, guides us through four steps you need to take to fully realize the potential of data in an ecosystem.

There’s no doubt that data is hot. More and more businesses are asking their users to log in to share their information. With knowledge of your user and their behaviors, you can create personalized products and experiences that will be more relevant and create greater engagement and user growth. And in the end increase revenues.

In an ecosystem with several companies tied together you are able to get facts from different kinds of sites and platforms. Of course that means a bigger amount of data from more users, but it also means a larger variety of data that can provide an even bigger picture. If, for example, a user visits both a news site and a classified site, that will tell different things about him or her.

There are some basic sources of data you can work with in data analytics and in an ecosystem.

  • Logged in user profiles.
  • Events – whatever a user does within a site.
  • Content – by analyzing what kind of content the user is consuming you can learn even more. For this the data science team uses language processing techniques, automatic tagging, and topic extractions.
  • Global data views – how users are flowing around in the ecosystem and how growth is going across the entire system.

The data science team then uses the data to build data products. These are tools to create personalized products and services. One example is targeted ads – showing different ads to different persons based on their profiles. It could also mean giving readers content we know they are interested in, or offering services connected to a purchase we know the user intend to make. Better personalization, in turn, can increase the reach, frequency, and variety of an ecosystem. It is in this way that an ecosystem becomes a self-reinforcing growth engine.

To get to a fully realized data ecosystem there are a few steps, or stages of evolution, that you have to take. This is how Adam Kinney explains it:


Stage 1: Silos of user data

This is where a lot of current ecosystems are now. Each of these orange blocks is one fact that we know about a user. We might know that a particular logged in user is 35 years old. Another user, visiting the classified site Finn, has used the car vertical five times last week. The boxes represent different companies and that each company builds its own understanding of users, independent of what is known about the same user of another Schibsted company.

At this stage the data exists, but a lot of the potential for using it comes by combining it.


Stage 2: Sums of user data

At this stage we have a common identification of both logged in and logged out users, which allows us to combine data. All significant actions that users take on any of the products in the ecosystem are collected in a central data store. If we visualize this as a matrix where you have users as rows, and features (facts about users) as columns, in this stage you get blanks, simply because we only have some facts.


Stage 3: Enriched user data

Stage two is where we systematically start to fill in all the blank spots. We have enough data on different kinds of users to be able to predict the true values in the gaps to provide complete profiles on nearly all users. We use machine learning techniques and build what we call classifiers to predict these values. And we get what we call enriched data. As an example we’ve built a model for gender prediction. By identifying which categories logged in users at Finn, who have given us their gender, click on – we can now predict gender for 85 per cent of all users.

When we have filled this in sufficiently it enables the next generation of personalization.


Stage 4: Reinforcing user data

This gets us to an ideal state, a selfreinforcing user data stage, where we’ve collected a sufficient critical mass of data that makes the process start taking on a life on its own.

New user patterns can be mined from the existing data, which then enable the accumulation of more user data, which can in turn be mined for more new patterns, and so on. At this point, new product innovations become possible in which we anticipate user needs and provide services to fulfill those needs.

And we can grow really, really big. This is the vision and Adam knows its power.

“I’ve seen, first hand, the power that enriched user data has to drive additional user growth – on top of what you’re going to get without it. That’s really impressive and powerful”, says Adam Kinney.

Wanted: More women in tech

Tech is in desperate need of women. With today’s under-representation we miss out on great innovations and profits. Camilla Bjørn, Isabelle Ringnes and Louise Fuchs challenge women everywhere to take part in the ongoing revolution and pose the question – am I a user of digital products or will I define the future of products?

Technology is fueling the world and has become ingrained into every facet of our life. It is the integral backbone driving virtually every industry, with media being among the flagship industries to both tackle the challenges and embrace its opportunities head on. But it is no secret that the ones defining this revolution, to a large extent, are men. Women account for less than 20 per cent of leading tech positions at the majority of tech companies worldwide. In the world at large there is a high demand of new engineering talent. At today’s rate we are not producing nearly enough engineers to meet future demands. By 2020, the US will require one million more computer scientists than is being trained today.

Hurts the ability to grow

Everywhere, companies are struggling to hire software engineers. This hurts the ability to grow, innovate and disrupt at the pace we have become accustomed to. It denies us from the privilege of empowering people in their daily life with cutting-edge products.

If women were recruited to STEM education at the same level as men are, numbers would increase dramatically. But this is not only a matter of numbers – the industries miss out on female perspectives. There are several examples of cutting-edge technologies whose first releases fell flat due to their lack of female involvement. The first voice recognition technology could not recognize female voices. The first airbags tragically killed several women and children because they had only been tested on men. Apple’s first release of Healthkit enabled users to measure virtually every bodily function ranging from caloric intake, exercise and blood pressure, yet it failed to measure one of the most important and natural aspects of female health, namely the menstrual cycle. Needless to say; a female perspective can be the make-it or break-it component of any product release.

Without it, companies are losing out on golden opportunities to innovate in female-oriented product categories. Not only do women account for 80 per cent of consumer purchases; yet still they report to be the least satisfied customers. Women are also the dominant drivers in industries such as fashion, baby or family related products and weddings. Companies are not only lacking the potential to envision the business opportunities in these promising verticals due to the lack of female employee representation, but are also failing to predict and optimize to meet the needs of about 50 per cent of their current consumers, readers and users.

Caught in a reactive loop

If we as women can’t define the future we will be caught in a reactive loop. Technology has revolutionized the media industry for the past decade and will continue to do so exponentially moving forward. Content is still king, but technology has become the dictator and the backbone that distinguishes leaders from followers and winners from losers. It is up to each company to make the bold decisions on how to integrate new technologies into their products, always focusing on the end-user. Therefore, to be tech-savvy will be vital for women in order to attain leadership positions with real impact going forward.

Willingness to change

A career in technology does not require advanced coding skills. Technology is already an integral part of our personal and professional lives. You don’t need to spend hours crunching code to sufficiently comprehend the opportunities and limitations of technology. In fact, among the most successful female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley only 16 per cent have technical degrees. Although technical skills are highly valued, they are not required to emerge in the field.

However, relentless curiosity, openness and willingness to change, are. This is our challenge to women. Don’t let the opportunities overwhelm you with apathy. Dare to be bold and take chances. Try to learn as much as you can along the way, and feel confident in knowing that no one knows everything. You know a lot more than you think. Fuel your passion everyday for the exciting development of new technologies, and challenge your mind to imagine how new innovations can benefit us all.

Technology brought us the Internet and all the wonderful free resources it is providing us today. Dare to exploit your network and your surroundings, and feed your brain with new perspectives, ideas and talent. Future leaders will need to understand technology in order to create change with a real impact. Leaning in essentially means learning more.

We are all new to this. The world is new to this. We are embracing these challenges together, globally, as companies and individuals. Passion for tech is your key to success.

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence

Four letters form the two major tech trends when summing up tech conferens South by Southwest, in Austin Texas – VI and AI. Virtual reality is truly becoming a new language of storytelling and artificial intelligence will probably change both how we live our lives and our workplace, maybe just not the way we’ve imagined.

If you want to name one tech trend that is the leading one, it’s probably Virtual Reality.

Virtual reality is a reality in gaming, documentary filming and news storytelling. It enables Nasa to travel to Mars and the more modest travel industry is discovering virtual tourism. The advertising business is curious how to use it and it might work for sports and military training. Art and music videos can be added to the list. In health treatment it can be used to help people with PTS and to distract pain.

Basically VR is the new way of storytelling that takes you to another world where you can see, touch, smell and interact. You are no longer watching what’s going on – you’re in the story. It creates a new presence that increase engagement, appeal to feelings and sympathy and that, at times, makes you forget your own troubles or pain.

At SXSW Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, described how he has followed the development of VR. His experience has not changed that much from when he explored the first attempts in the late 80’s but today VR is available – thanks to cheap components and technology. Kelly even believes that VR will be the next big platform, after the mobile phone, and that it will be the most social of social media, since you are there, meeting and interacting with others. Beneath it all there is a movement from the Internet of information to the Internet of experience.

AI – a brain in the cloud

Next to VR on the tech throne is artificial intelligence. It’s great for making our fantasy create both astonishing visions – and fears. All those movies where robots are taking over, thinking like humans, but in the end acting evil. Or the more ground to earth threat – of them taking our jobs.

What if it’s all going to be completely different? What if AI even will create new jobs and what if AI will be more like electricity – services that flows and that we can pick and choose from?

Experts seam to agree on one thing – AI won’t be like us. It will not have a conscious, it’s not trustworthy, it can’t interpret feelings and can’t argue why it reaches to different conclusions. It will simply put be a bit autistic – a nanny anyone?

But AI will think differently, and that might be one of it’s biggest assets – with all challenges lying ahead we will need different ways of thinking and solving problems.

It seams like if we won’t have human-like robots in our home for a great while. But we might have an AI-brain in the cloud, handling things like personal calculations and information. In the bigger scale, companies and authorities will have access to AI as support for decisions and competence.

About the jobs – Kevin Kelly from the Wired, believes that AI will do all the things humans shouldn’t, all the boring and monotonous jobs. And that this will enable the growth of more creative jobs for humans. In the future humans will work along side AI – and there will be a new attractive skill – collaborating with AI. Imagine those coffee breaks …

As for now – robots can also be fun. Swedish Simone Giertz makes the world’s worst.

South by Southwest (SXSW)

SXSW is a set of annual conferences and festivals in Austin, Texas, gathering experts and enthusiasts within, film, music and interactive media.
The music festival is regarded as the largest of it’s kind, featuring more than 2 200 acts and attracting more than 30 000 registrants in 2016.
SXSW film started of focusing on indie films but is now also attracting larger players.
The interactive part is focused on emerging technology and trends and attracts start up hunters as well as industry leaders within tech and media. The first SXSW festival took place in 1987.