How To Simplify Things
Deborah Adler’s grandmother fell ill one day because it transpired that she had accidentally taken her husband’s prescription medicine instead of her own. She recovered. Adler wondered: How does such a mix-up happen? She took a peek into her grandparents’ medicine cabinet and found the answer: rows of identical small brown prescription drug vials, each one bearing a medicine label that was practically unreadable, even for Adler.
Adler researched and learned that there’s an epidemic of people mistakenly taking the wrong medications—more than half of Americans have done so at one time or another. But, in spite of this, no one had thought of doing anything about those hard-to-read labels, on prescription bottles, that had been used for decades.
Adler, who happened to have studied design, created her own test versions of different kinds of prescription drug bottles and labels. She sought to arrange the information in a logical order, giving prominence to the things people need to know most, at the precise moment they’re reaching for their medicine. Having read about cognitive schemes (a psychological term that refers to the ways people take in and organise information), she knew it was important to try to anticipate what people might want to know first, second and third. So, she decided the label should zero in on those three important facts: who the medicine is for; the name of the drug and dosage; and how to take it.
Adler divided the drug label into two parts separated by a thick black line in the middle. The critical information went into the top section, while everything else was relegated to the bottom. Next, she decided to rethink the shape of the bottles. On conventional rounded vials, it can be hard to read the wrap-around labels; you have to turn the bottle as you read. Adler thought: why can’t a medicine bottle be flat? She ended up using a flat tube that stood upright on its cap, with plenty of room for a large flat label that could be read at one glance.
Adler also felt that it was important to distinguish between medicine bottles of different family members who might be sharing the same cabinet. She thought about how she and her husband kept their toothbrushes separate by using different colours. Why can’t medicine bottles also be colour-coded?
Adler created colour rings for each family member. The last change involved the warnings on drug labels—often, a source of confusion. Working with designer Milton Glaser, she replaced old instructions with new, more intuitive icons. (For example, a warning to pregnant women featured a silhouette of a pregnant woman’s body)
Adler’s efforts to create simpler, clearer drug packaging served as the basis of her master’s thesis; but soon, it became something more. After she presented a sample of her redesigned objects to representatives of the Target retail chain, Target bought the idea and rushed a new line of prescription drug bottles to market, in 2005. Adler’s ‘ClearRx’ prescription system has been used by Target pharmacies ever since. What Adler did was to inject clarity. Clarity is one of three things that authors Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn suggest we need to do, to make things simple. The other two are: empathise (with the user) and distil (the essence of what you want to achieve).
Complexity is wreaking havoc in our lives. A US study shows that half of the gadgets returned to stores are in good working order, because customers can’t figure out how to operate them. Of course, complexity is sometimes wilfully created and perpetuated.
Banks, credit card companies, insurers, telecom companies, etc, find complexity very rewarding. It helps them make money from the fine print that nobody can read or understand. Complexity creeps up on systems too. The United States tax code has “nearly tripled in volume during the last decade” to 3.8 million words; even tax officials cannot file their own returns. It’s worse in India. We urgently need simplicity, i.e., user-friendliness—no fine print, no clutter, transparency, ease-of-use, etc.
Simple explains the complexity menace in detail and provides many real-life examples of simplicity that have led to great success—from the minimalist design of Apple products, to clutter-free home page of Google, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to replace pages and pages of listings in the New York City directory with one phone number, 311, to cover a wide range of complaints and questions. An excellent read.