Less is More
Consumers are gravitating toward “simple” products and experiences (even vicarious ones) that are made for the social media age. As technology becomes more inescapable and it becomes harder to truly disconnect, simplicity in form and function provides a crucial relief to the overwhelmed consumer.
In 2011, 20-something Foster Huntington quit his job at Ralph Lauren in New York to live out of a camper, mostly on the California coast. He documented his new surroundings and adventures extensively on Instagram, often posting photos of his camper against picturesque back drops with the caption #vanlife.
The hashtag took off. Huntington gained more than a million Instagram followers, and the hashtag gave birth to a new subset of influencers living in vans (and buses and tiny houses and boats) in pursuit of an Instagram- worthy itinerant lifestyle. “God I wish my life was that free and easy and amazing,” reads a typical comment.
Huntington, who now lives in a much- photographed tree house near the Columbia River Gorge, recently published a collection of the best van life photos with Hachette, “perfect for who anyone daydreams about living on the open road.”
The popularity of #vanlife speaks to the growing trend we’ve called “The Allure of Less,” in which overwhelmed consumers are gravitating toward simplicity in form and function for relief.
And overwhelmed we are: Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that the average person is exposed to 74 gigabytes of data each day today—in 1980, by contrast, we consumed the equivalent of just 10 gigabytes a day. In 2017, Nielsen reported that US adults consume nearly an entire hour more of media per day than they did in 2015, due to a marked increase in phone and tablet usage.
In response to this information overload, consumers are simplifying their lives by any means possible. Having a lot of stuff is no longer a symbol of status—having a small, expertly-curated collection of stuff is. Campos has previously reported on related trends, which we called “Lightweighting,” in 2016, and “Digital Detox,” in 2017. There is a clear trajectory to today’s consumer, whose tolerance for complexity in any and all product design or user experience is now officially zero. Consumers want products to be high quality, minimalist in design, and effortless to use.
The rise of social media has further contributed by offering people a visual escape from the chaos of our modern world. Huntington’s #vanlife provides an obvious example, but minimalist home décor is another extremely popular Instagram and Pinterest genre. Ordinary users are, in turn, rewarded for posting their own simple experiences or products. Maybe you won’t quit your job to live out of a van or redecorate your home to look like something out of Kinfolk magazine, but you might Instagram your hike or that new reclaimed wood end table.
The tech world is a leader in minimalist design, often because simplified design leads to a better user experience. Apple has been leading the way for years—the iPhone, released a decade ago, was as groundbreaking for the design features it didn’t have as the ones it did. The king of the smartphone hill at the time was the Blackberry, whose physical keypad seemed to be a necessity.
The design focus for so many great tech products has been to make them incredibly intuitive to use, which has become something consumers have come to expect.
Gary Kayye, an expert in technology branding and marketing at the University of North Carolina, put it this way: “Today, if I were the CEO of a tech company, I would immediately buy every engineer an Amazon Dot and tell them to figure it out with no instructions. Even those who are much older wouldn’t have trouble operating it. Then, I would say, ‘That’s how all our tech should operate if we want to meet the demands of the millennial and up-and-coming Generation-Z markets, simultaneously.’”
Clearly, the burden of complexity is shifting from the consumer to the manufacturer or retailer. The Global Brand Simplicity Index 2017 reports that 64% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for a simpler experience, and this has implications beyond tech devices.10 The internet, where most purchases now take
place, provides for an overwhelming amount of options for any given product, and consumers are left to navigate dozens of websites with hundreds of customer reviews to find the best option. A new crop of brands has responded to this with striking minimalist design and marketing that emphasizes simplicity.
Take Everlane, for example, the San Francisco-based clothing brand that’s become a hit with fashion bloggers and hip millennials. “We’re not big on trends,” their site reads, “we want you to wear our pieces for years, even decades to come.” They sell a limited variety of high-quality staples in solid colors—perfect for a “capsule wardrobe,” that is, a wardrobe that has been pared down to only the essentials. Likewise look at Uniqlo who we featured previously as having conquered millennial fashion.
More established brands are embracing the trend towards simplicity too: SAP, Europe's biggest technology company, uses the tagline "run simple." Volvo's homepage featured a black car against a gray background labeled "the beauty of simplicity." And in early 2018, Toyota unveiled a prototype of its autonomous vehicle, whose censors and cameras are more integrated than other self-driving cars. The designers are calling it "intelligent minimalism.”
In a world of overwhelming choice, customer journeys that are stripped down to the essentials are a welcome relief. Even established brands with complicated products can simplify. Product developers and marketers can embrace this trend by prioritizing customer experience planning, whether it's for a product, service, an application or website, or a physical location.