It Shouldn't Take a Genius to Understand You
"I'm Bill Gates. Takes a genius to understand me."
—Rapper Flo Rida in Good Feeling
I hear that song on the radio and cringe. Flo Rida's lyrics suggest it's a good thing that it takes a genius to understand him—that complexity makes him, in fact, a genius. In reality, the opposite is true: It takes a genius to be able to communicate in a way that is understood by absolutely everyone and anyone. This inversion is one of the most important things for a creator to understand.
This was the core finding of a 2006 study by Princeton professor Daniel M. Oppenheimer, wittily entitled "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly." Of the study's Stanford undergraduate participants, 86 percent admitted to puffing up their language at some point in an academic or professional context.
It's an easy mistake to make. Those with higher IQs typically have large vocabularies. Thus we assume the converse must be true: if one uses a lot of big words, clearly one must have a higher IQ. There is a catch in this logic, however: readers, and users of software, are self-centered and also very lazy. In practice, we users care a lot more about our own experience of trying to understand something than recognizing the subtle genius of others.
In a recent earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook explained one of the company's most core values: "We believe in the simple, not the complex." You can see this philosophy borne out in every aspect of Apple's customer experience: hardware, software, the retail experience, packaging, even down to words it chooses to describe products.
In Adam Lashinsky's recent book Inside Apple, Apple exec Bob Borchers recounts that Apple boiled down the iPhone to three simple things: 1. It was a revolutionary phone; 2. It was the Internet in your pocket; 3. It was the best iPod ever created. Apple's consistent success is defined by its ability to describe a complex and powerful product in the simplest terms possible.
Microsoft has served as a foil to Apple's simplicity for decades. Flo Rida's allusion to Bill Gates might be somewhat appropriate given the unusual amount of complex corporate speak found in Microsoft's product naming and marketing. For instance, products featured on the website of Microsoft Expression (a brand ironically aimed towards designers) include Expression Encoder Service Pack 2, Expression Blend Preview for Silverlight 5, and Expression Web *SuperPreview* Trial. It makes you wonder what exactly all of those products do, since it's not immediately obvious from their names alone. I'm a little afraid of finding out what "SuperPreview" means, as it will occupy neurons in my brain better suited towards more productive goals. Luckily, it's easy to avoid finding out because the product description is expertly hidden in a giant block of text.
Flo Rida might be able to get by on a catchy beat and a memorable hook. Microsoft's engineering capabilities may make its naming gaffes forgivable. The rest of us will have to try create things that can be understood by geniuses and non-geniuses alike, and that very feat requires a bit of genius of our own.
GARRY TAN | Columnist | Founder, Posthaven
Garry Tan is a partner with Y Combinator. He invests in early-stage Internet start-ups and helps them build world-class user experiences. Garry is a designer and software engineer who co-founded Posterous, and now runs Posthaven.