Lessons in Simplicity from the Flip

Most consumer electronics today seem to be built by engineers for engineers, resulting in feature creep—way more bells and whistles than most users will ever want. The Flip digital video camcorder stands out because of its simplicity. Since its introduction in May 2007, Flip, now owned by Cisco Systems (CSCO), has reinvigorated the portable camcorder market, accounting for 36% of all camcorders sold during the 2009 holiday season, according to market researcher NPD Group. I recently interviewed Simon Fleming-Wood, part of the original Flip development team, to learn how this popular product was created, designed, and marketed. The Flip story is based on a philosophy that every consumer touch point must be simple and fun. Here are four ways Flip won hearts and minds that you may be able to apply to your own business.

Keep your product or service simple. Flip designers had a test—whenever they created a prototype and handed it to someone, they intended for that person to be able to turn it on and play with it in 30 seconds without having to read a manual. The 30-second rule became very important. Instead of adding lots of features, designers limited the Flip to four buttons: on/off, record, playback, and delete. That philosophy is still in place: To keep the user experience simple, everything needed to play the device is built in (including a pop-out USB arm to connect the device to a computer). It allows the camera to ship with no installation CD and no cables. Everything the user needs is contained in the camera.

"Our competitors continue to cram features into their products. There is a temptation for us to play that game, but we will not. Our focus is on the user experience while the traditional players who come from the digital camera market see the world in terms of pixels and features. I'm glad they see the world that way because it misses the magic of Flip, " says Fleming-Wood, now senior director of marketing for Cisco Consumer Products.

Deliver a simple presentation. When Fleming-Wood pitched retailers to convince them to stock the new camera in 2007, he spent 50% of his pitch on one very simple slide. He asked them to "reimagine" the category. The slide contains photos of two camcorders—a traditional video camera and the Flip. Under the traditional camcorder are the words: "Use this for special occasions." Under the Flip are the words: "Use this for everything else." The slide frames the Flip philosophy and shows how the founders outlined their vision for the category. Flip, they argued, would revolutionize the category just as point-and-shoot cameras democratized a still-camera market that was dominated by more advanced SLR cameras. The design philosophy that went into the camera went into designing the presentation. Introducing too much data would have been akin to adding too many features. The focus was on the big picture.

Offer simple packaging and instructions. The product is the "hero " on the package. The outside is distinguishable by what it eliminates. Flip designers resist the temptation to include all the specs on the package. "We want people to forget about the technology and enjoy the experience," says Fleming-Wood. When you open the package, the Flip does away with a thick user manual. Instead a small guide is included—nothing else. "We had serious debates about including the quick-start guide at all." All design elements had to be approachable and unintimidating. The traditional user manuals are overwhelming, especially given that the vast majority of users don't use many of the more advanced features on camcorders and still cameras.

Build a simple Web site. Instead of being overwhelmed by products, visitors to the Flip Web site are presented with two types of cameras—the Ultra and the Mino. Other than the simple home page, the tabs include products, where to buy, buzz, and support. In keeping with the Flip's simple communication principles, the information a consumer is searching for should be easily accessed within 30 seconds of entering the site.

I recently stayed in a new Beverly Hills hotel designed by famous French designer Philippe Starck, who in addition to designing stunning hotel interiors is also known for innovative products sold at Target (TGT) stores. Starck says that "beautiful" and "trendy" are overrated—designers should instead aspire to "good." With the Flip, I see what he means. The founders never set out to create a "beautiful" but unapproachable device. They didn't set out to create a device with trendy new features that increased complexity. They set out to build a good product that was approachable and fun.

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