Monday, December 2, 2013

Lost in Translation

One of my favorite movies was "Lost in Translation," starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. The story works on many different levels as it explores multiple levels of lost translations between a man and a woman from two different generations as they explore the foreign landscape of Tokyo together. 

In the highly regulated financial services world where I work, there are also multiple levels of lost translations that take place between clients and financial advisors as well as financial advisors and the firms they work for. Throw in a basket of complex financial instruments and you create numerous opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication. 

What remedy can solve many of these challenges? In a nutshell, it's simplicity. Albert Einstein once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler." During one of my regular visits to the public library, I found an intriguing book entitled, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn. In our modern information age, most of us complain about information overload, but I think the real culprit is not just the volume of information we face every day, but the complexity of the information that bombards us. Here are some examples from Siegel and Etzkorn that you might find shocking:

  • In 1980, the typical credit card contract was about a page and a half long. Today it is thirty-one pages." 
  • If you're a homeowner, how well do you understand your homeowners' insurance policy? A 2007 National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) survey revealed that one-third to one-half of insurance policyholders were misinformed about what perils are covered and how much they might receive if they made a claim.
  • Marquis Dunson died in 2002 after his parents gave the one-year-old Infants' Tylenol for three days to treat his cold symptoms. In the subsequent lawsuit, which resulted in a $5 million award, the plaintiffs argued that the warning labels and directions on the Infants' Tylenol label did not make clear that an overdose of acetaminophen, Tylenol's active ingredient, could lead to liver failure.
  • The United States was founded and governed for over two centuries on the basis of a document that is six pages long. That is 0.1 percent of the length of the current income tax code, which currently runs fourteen thousand pages. 

According to Siegel and Etzkorn, "complexity is costing us money, undermining government and business, and putting our health and even our lives at risk." As a consumer, I think it's time for us to fight complexity instead of complacently accepting it as a fact of life. And the best way to defeat complexity is by demanding simplicity from the companies that serve us. For example, I own a Samsung smartphone. I understand the icons that appear in color on my home screen. But the icon on the bottom left of my phone is not intuitive. It looks like part of a document because it's rectangular in shape with two horizontal lines embedded inside it. When I press on this icon, it pulls up six different options: Add, Wallpaper, Search, Notification, Edit page, and Settings. For a brand new Smartphone user, I would recommend using a different icon instead of the rectangular one. Why not just use the word, "options" or OPT for short? 

On my MacBook Air, on the bottom left-hand corner of my keyboard, are four keys that appear to be similar to each other in terms of function: fn, control, option, and command.  Instead of using descriptive words to describe these keys, I think a pictorial icon would be more understandable. How can a new Apple user remember which key to use in order to perform certain commands such as copying and pasting? The problem with many technology applications and devices is that these instruments are designed by geeks for other geeks to use. That is why I think it's important for design teams to introduce prototype products to real consumers before the initial product launch. A consumer might buy something he doesn't understand, but if you want to turn this consumer into a raving fan, create a product that is so simple that even his ninety-year-old grandmother can understand how to use it. 

Simplicity also plays an important role in how well we communicate. Technology has created greater attention deficit among children and adults. In today's information-saturated world, if you want to get your message across, say more using fewer words. Ernest Hemingway is famous for his brevity. Here is his most famous six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn." Using only six words, the story's message is clear. Nothing more needs to be said.