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Does Innovation Mean Complexity? True Genius Brings Simplicity

31/03/2014 14:29 BST | Updated 31/05/2014 10:59 BST

We've all faced 'feature creep' - the often overwhelming new choices and functions of our shiny new technology that can baffle, confound and occasionally distress us. But not all technology or innovations needs to perplex us. Sometimes we smack our foreheads and say "wow, I never even knew I needed this, but it will change my life."

Who needs washing machines that talk to us, or reply to our texts, after all?

A straightforward way technology assists us is when it solves real world problems that we are conscious of - and when it's easy to use. Ease of use that encourages adoption is a key factor that turns innovation into genius, arguably.

Simplicity and usability are driving forces for innovation that goes viral. Some of the most successful technologies are effectively very simple, and simply very effective. Obvious examples of solutions that solve real problems whilst appearing simplicity itself include text messaging, Lego, the telephone, the web browser and the concept of the app.

None of these items would enable communication or entertain the world if they were too complicated to use. Their level of complexity has been pitched perfectly to encourage take-up and use, and in each case because the solution itself manages to demonstrate the scale of the problem it solves.

So why do many companies appear to make their solutions complicated? The old joke used to be that grown-ups needed their kids to help them programme their VCRs, but any modern solution that creates a barrier to use through over-complication will really suffer in the world of consumerisation and choice we live in.

I'd go so far as to suggest a simple principle to bear in mind. If a solution clearly solves a problem people are aware of, then you have innovation. But if a solution shows people the scale of a problem they didn't even know they had, that's a form of genius.

It's a simple maxim. Steve Jobs reportedly once said, "you can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new."

So that's what the best technology innovations and leaps of genius do - they allow the user to bring forth their desires and change the world with ease. Simple can actually be remarkably sophisticated...

We live in an age of technological sophistication, and yet Lego and Meccano remain, even after decades, incredibly popular toys amongst both children, and adults too! The BBC recently ran the show 'Lego - The Building Blocks of Architecture', and this year The Lego Movie was released. These toys allow the user a sandbox to create what they can see in their mind incredibly quickly and easily.

Of course the iPhone is one of the most well-known examples of the power of simplicity to change people's lives. Mobile phones were popular before the iPhone, but the simplicity of design encouraged an explosion of adopters who picked the iPhone as their first phone, as a phone that both youngsters and those new to modern mobiles could grasp intuitively. Apple has made a stand for simplicity as a design mantra. The extension of this design philosophy to the App Store propelled the digitisation of the world forward explosively. It also helped create new communities of innovators striving for a slice of the market of savvy digital, mobile consumers.

The iPhone revolution really made the person in the street think about innovation as it encouraged a marketplace of innovation, entertainment and usefulness, beamed right into the hands of the user.

At present a potential new revolution in the making is wearable technology, with Google Glass leading the charge. This technology-clothing-accessory fusion is currently seeing remarkable innovation, but it can be hard to predict just what will prove to be a successful product and become a mainstream, really useful tool.

My money is on the technologies that are the simplest to operate, the most user friendly, and that instantly show the user just how poor their life had been up to that point. It might be a smart watch, a phone that reinvents personal privacy, or a personal fitness monitor (all unveiled at Mobile World Congress this year) - or none of these at all. Innovation comes in many forms and its advent is often a complete surprise to the world.

One thing is for sure, the most successful innovation will bring power to the hands of those who did not previously understand their powerlessness, and simplicity to those who had not realised the complexity they faced.

Charles Arthur, technology journalist at the Guardian who wrote the article on washing machines and innovation asks if manufacturers are asking of their research teams, "what can we..." - a question that invites feature creep. If they ask "I wish we could..." that's question that makes us think about the wider world and how we can approach it.

That's a challenge for all our UK entrepreneurs and innovators. Ask what you, your family, your friends and business colleagues might not even realise that they want - "I wish I could..." - and then try and change the world to fulfil that wish.