Giles Colborn is an expert in creating beautiful user experiences, which means making things simple and putting the user first. Writing a book, he says, is no different:
You have to have a number of things very clear in your mind. You have to understand, at a very deep level, what it is you want to say. You have to understand who your audience is, and you have to appreciate the way in which the writing is likely to land with them. The temptation as an author, or as a designer, is to try and pack everything in, to try and say everything you want to say, to try and put every feature you want into the product, and the difficult thing to wrap your head around, very often, is that the book is only half of the story… what really matters is what happens when it lands in somebody’s hands, what happens in their head in response to it.
In this episode, we discuss just how hard simple writing is, and why what you take out is just as important as what stays in.
Alison Jones: Hi, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club, and today, I’m here with Giles Colborne, who’s the author of Simple and Usable, which is a very beautiful book. We’re going to be talking about that a little bit later, actually, because it’s so beautiful. He’s also the MD of CX Partners, Customer Experience Consultants, and speaks regularly on the things of simplicity and delight.
Welcome, Giles, to the Club.
Giles Colborne: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Alison Jones: Lovely to have you here. Let’s start with the story behind Simple and Usable. What prompted you to write that book?
Giles Colborne: I can look back over my work, over my career, and realize that the question of simplicity, and what it is, and how do you design it or create it, has been one that I’ve always been fascinated by, but specifically, coming to write the book, I went to a conference in the United States, and I ran a workshop at that conference, on the topic of simplicity, where I gave people an exercise, which I’d been running with potential recruits, as part of our recruitment process, for a number of years.
The discussion, the debate, the way that that design exercise, which was to redesign a DVD remote control, resonated with people, was so great that I and a number of people there thought, “This has legs. This should be a book.” It really went from there, and grew very quickly.
Alison Jones: I notice on your website, you’ve got like a gallery. You’re inviting people to submit their remote control designs, aren’t you? This lovely one that says, “Please just read my mind”, just 1 button. It’s funny, it’s a great tool for thinking, isn’t it? It gives somebody a very practical problem, and allows them to completely think out of the box. What came up for you? What was the new way of thinking about it, if you like?
Giles Colborne: I think that question, how could you simplify something, is at the heart of a lot of what I do, professionally. It’s designing stuff so it’ll feel simple. Giving that exercise to people, over the years, as I was doing, first of all as I said, in job interviews, then since then, in workshops that I’ve run all over the world. It forces people to make choices, and those choices, first of all, it was really clear to me from quite an early point that solutions were falling into one of 4 different categories. There are 4 kind of key approaches.
Around each of those, there were choices that people were having to make, and certainly in the workshops that I do, the debate and discussion about why those choices are made, about what that says about people’s ideas about what the design should be, have been fascinating, and the subject of a lot of creativity and deep thought. As I said, I’ve run workshops all over the world, from India to Israel.
Alison Jones: I love that concept of just taking something that you take for granted and reinventing it from the ground up, “How could this be different? How could it be made simple?” We accept so much complexity in our lives, don’t we? I’m also wondering about the parallels with writing, and it made me laugh when you said, in the introduction, or was it your acknowledgments, that the irony wasn’t lost on you that writing this book wasn’t at all a simple process.
It makes me think about simple writing, though. There’s a great quote about easy writing is damn hard reading, and visa versa. It takes a lot of thought, and effort, and time to make writing feel very straightforward and easy, and I’m guessing the same is true for really, really good user design.
Giles Colborne: Yes, absolutely, and I think the same thing applies there. You have to have a number of things very clear in your mind. You have to understand, at a very deep level, what it is you want to say. You have to understand who your audience is, and you have to appreciate the way in which the writing is likely to land with them. I think the temptation as an author, or as a designer, is to try and pack everything in, to try and say everything you want to say, to try and put every feature you want into the product, and the difficult thing to wrap your head around, very often, is that the book is only half of the story, or the designed thing is only half of the story, and what really matters is what happens when it lands in somebody’s hands, what happens in their head in response to it.
That’s really what makes writing and designing very complicated, is that you only ever have half of the picture, and you have to use your imagination, and think, “What will happen when somebody reads this, or uses this?” That’s what makes it hard, because if you don’t trust the right things to happen, you go, “Oh, well I’ll put in a bit more, just to make sure. I’ll do a bit more, just to be certain,” then the writing just becomes turgid. It’s like, “Oh, stop it. I need space to think!” The reader needs space to have their own ideas.
Alison Jones: That’s exactly the word that was coming to me, is that space, isn’t it? It’s almost that space, and the permission for it to become something that you didn’t expect, or plan as well, isn’t it? People take things and use them differently, and sometimes that’s even better than you could have imagined.
Giles Colborne: Yes, and you have to be okay with that, as well. You have to remind yourself that you’re not the star here, the reader is the star, and it’s really their ideas that matter. I’m very lucky, as I said, that this isn’t just a book for me, this is a workshop. This is my job. I get to see that all the time, and that’s very good. As an author, you don’t always get that. You don’t always see the impact of the ideas on people’s faces, and in people’s actions, but the fact that I can kind of take it out there and run it as a workshop, and continue to engage with people means that I’m constantly reminded that, actually, it’s what happens next that’s the really interesting and important thing.
Alison Jones: That’s such a good point, and many of the people listening to this will be people that are using the topical content that they’re writing about day-to-day, and get to see how it lands with people, get to see what resonates, and what works, and what doesn’t, and what questions come up that they thought people were just born knowing, and that can really, really help. You don’t just sit in a closed room and write your opus. It’s a feedback loop that’s constantly open.
Giles Colborne: The world has changed, as well, and since I wrote the book, I wrote and took the example of a DVD remote control. Well, that technology is legacy, now.
Alison Jones: “How quaint, a DVD remote control.”
Giles Colborne: Exactly. “Now, everyone, I’m going to need to explain. Once upon a time, there existed these things.”
Alison Jones: It’s not funny at all, honestly. The number of things that my children just don’t recognize at all, that I don’t think of as history. It’s quite funny.
Giles Colborne: People come to it with a whole different vocabulary, and a whole different set of ideas, so the solutions that people have come up with or the emphasis of those solutions have actually kind of changed and shifted over the years, and that’s been fascinating to watch, too.
Alison Jones: Certainly our expectations around usability have changed massively, with the plug and play thing, which is completely standard now, or at least should be. That was a revelation 10 years ago, wasn’t it?
Giles Colborne: Absolutely was, and the idea that you could take something from the store, out of the box, plug it in and it would work, that was, “This is magic! What kind of dark arts have gone on here?” Now, when that doesn’t happen, you’re …
Alison Jones: Furious.
Giles Colborne: The idea that you might have to follow instructions to get something up and running is horrendous.
Alison Jones: I’m sure it has to do with internationalization as well. Remember those instruction sheets? Well, you still get them. They’re in 58 languages, all on a double-sided sheet of A0 paper all folded up. Awful. When you came to write the book, did you consciously use … I’m guessing it’s probably so deeply embedded in you you couldn’t help it, but were you aware of using your principles, your Occam’s Razor of design, and simplicity, and usability, as you wrote?
Giles Colborne: Certainly starting to write the book, I realized very early on that the idea of writing a book about simplicity that did not feel simple was never going to fly. That would be so offensive, and there are a lot out there, actually. There are a lot of books about simplicity that just get bogged down in philosophy, rather than giving people very practical advice. Certainly, paring down what I was saying, and removing, that’s one of the strategies, was very important. I spent a lot of time throwing away a lot of unnecessary structure.
Another question is about how do you organize this stuff, and getting the flow right was also incredibly important, making sure that the ideas appeared, both in a logical order, so that you could read it as a narrative, but also that they stood on their own, so you could dip in and read a page, and take something away from it immediately.
Yes, absolutely, those things were foremost in my mind. Initially, I found myself getting very tied up in knots, because it takes a long time to understand how those things play out.
Alison Jones: I like the point that you made about the space, the white space almost, as well. What you take away, what you pare away, is just as important as what you leave behind. It doesn’t always feel intuitive to writers. As you say, they want to stuff everything in there, but it’s like music, the rests are just as important as the notes.
Giles Colborne: Yes. Thinking about the cadence of the book, thinking about what it would be like to read it, and creating a rhythm that allow people to pause and think about an idea, was very important. That’s one of the reasons the book has the structure it does, which is that you’ll find a page of text, and facing that, a single image, and the idea there was to create something where you would be able to read an idea embedded in a story, with an example, and with an image that would allow you to think about how that played out in other spaces, in the real world, and give people a chance to do exactly that, to pause, to reflect, and to take what they needed from each of the ideas.
Alison Jones: I thought that was really powerful. The book has such a spacious, calm feel about it, which is very much in tune, as you say, with the idea of simplicity. Let’s come on to the images, because the book, as I said before, it is beautiful. You have these wonderful, full page, colour images. I was wondering, as a publisher, did you have a tussle with the publisher about this? The space is expensive, it means more paper, the colour printing in an interior is expensive. Publishers normally have to be convinced to do a book like this. What’s the story behind that?
Giles Colborne: I was very lucky. When I was thinking about where and how I’d like the book to be published, I had 2 publishers, both of whom had great business libraries, that I really liked and admired, in mind. They were both interested in the book, and almost by accident, I chose the one that gave me a good deal of latitude in the design of the book. When I was thinking about the interior design, and the structure of the book, and talking to the editorial team, very early on I spoke about wanting to make it feel simple, and therefore needing to break it up in this way, and they allowed me to go with that.
The design team for the book were based in San Francisco, so that’s an impossible time difference away. They’re just getting into work as you’re finishing work, so you only have a little bit of time, during the day, or during the evening, to speak to each other, so I was very conscious of that, and at the start of the design process, I put together mood boards, I even sent them a playlist, to kind of get across, “This is what I mean,” and they really responded to that.
Alison Jones: I love that idea. I’ve never heard an author do that. What a brilliant idea.
Giles Colborne: I think that kind of helped us connect and engage. When they sent back their interpretations of what I wanted, I was like, “Yeah, that’s wonderful. Thank you.”
Alison Jones: I wonder, Giles, are you prepared to share your playlist?
Giles Colborne: It’s a long time ago. I remember Simple Things was on there, but that’s about all.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Is New Riders the publishers? That’s presumably a quite small publishing company? I often find that independent publishers, or smaller companies are more up for stuff like this, more interesting, less formulaic approaches.
Giles Colborne: They’re part of Pearson’s, so they’re a huge publisher.
Alison Jones: Oh interesting, okay. A distinct imprint within that?
Giles Colborne: Exactly, and specialists within the field that I work, which was obviously important to me. It meant that the editorial team really understood what I do, and small enough, within that enormous organization, to have their own ways of doing things.
Alison Jones: Yeah, brilliant. That’s a good example of where an imprint within a big company can have the cost effectiveness, and the economies of scale that the big company bring, but still keep that distinctive culture and approach to things. It’s great.
Giles Colborne: Yeah.
Alison Jones: I noticed, thinking about how you use the book in your business, and I’ve been talking a lot in my boot camp at the moment, about your online strategy, and how you integrate the book online with your business. It’s interesting. There is no GilesColborne.com, there’s SimpleAndUsable.com, and there’s CXPartners.com. What were you thinking when you put together your plan for the book’s online presence, and how it would relate to the other bits of you?
Giles Colborne: This was a long time ago, and I think …
Alison Jones: 2010, wasn’t it?
Giles Colborne: That’s right, so the world has moved on since then, so it’s maybe not the way that I’d do it now, but I was keen to make sure that I had space at the time, to blog and run ideas around that, that clearly I own the business, which has grown considerably since then, and I didn’t want … I wanted the book to feed into that, rather than detract, or feel too separate from that. Hence, putting together a blog-based website, and trying to keep the links between me, and the company, and the book as close as possible.
Alison Jones: Interesting, and yet give them each space to be their own thing, as well.
Giles Colborne: Themselves, yeah absolutely.
Alison Jones: You said you might not do it that way now. Can you think of how you might do things differently now? How do you think things have changed since then?
Giles Colborne: One of the wonderful things, from my point of view, was that once my colleagues had seen that writing a book was that easy, I don’t think they saw…
Alison Jones: Let’s come on to that.
Giles Colborne: I don’t think it’s all quite the pain that you go through as an author, but they got very interested and excited about doing the same thing themselves, and we’d figured out how to do that as a business, how to wrap that into the everyday work of the business, and sharing stuff is really important to us. As a business, we’ve always been very engaged with the community of people who do what we do, people who do customer experience design, so it felt very natural for us to put our ideas out in that way. A lot of other books have followed in the business, of all sizes, from slim how-to manuals, to much thicker, more detailed, almost degree-level coursework, so a great variety of stuff.
How I think we’d do it differently today is, if I was setting out with a strategy, I might even want to create an imprint of our own, but certainly, looking to fulfil a library of our books would be a lovely pipe dream.
Alison Jones: Yes, I love that idea, so actually creating an imprint, then partnering with someone to publish them on your behalf. Great. You talked about the ‘very simple, easy process’ of writing the book. Tell us a little bit more about that. What surprised you about that process? What did you learn from it? Let’s turn that around, and for everybody out there who are in the throes of writing their first business book, what hard-won advice would you give them?
Giles Colborne: I’d say stay away from sharp objects. Writing a book is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve done. If you’ve not done it before, the sense of guilt, and responsibility, and self-doubt is something you won’t be familiar with, but at every moment of spare time, a little voice would go off in my head, saying, “Shouldn’t you be writing now?” That was difficult.
What I’ve learned since then, I think, is pace, but an awful lot of time I spent writing the book, as I said, I recognized it, and I had to create something that felt simple, and doing that and still sounding like me, still having my voice come through, rather than trying to copy something else I’d seen, took a long time.
I threw away a whole other book’s worth of material, because it was wrong. It just wasn’t working. It probably took me about maybe 2/3 of the time I spent writing the book was learning how to hit that note. Once I’d done that, actually, it flowed very quickly indeed, so by the end, I was able to take an idea, and put it into place very quickly, but gosh it took a long time getting there, and it wasn’t an easy process at all. What is that line, “Writing is easy, you just sit in front of a typewriter and bleed.”
Alison Jones: That’s right. I think it is very heartening to hear people say that, because of course all you see, as the reader, is the polished, finished output, and it’s that that you’re comparing yourself against constantly as you’re trying to write your own book. I think it’s a good reminder that there was an awful lot of rubbish to get through before you got to that end product.
Giles Colborne: Yeah, and something, again, I didn’t appreciate until I really got there was, you mentioned the images in the book, and they are 50% of the book. You have a page of text, and image. It turns out they were almost half the work, because tracking down the right images, securing rights, that took an awful lot of work, and again, there’s an awful lot of dead ends there to go down.
Alison Jones: Yeah, pictures are tricky in all sorts of ways, and permissions particularly. I like your point as well about the attachment. I’ve been really struggling with this, and I created several tens of thousands of words, and just had to bin an awful lot of them, which felt, just before I did it, felt awful and the worst thing ever, and just after I did it, it was the most incredible light sensation. I have nothing to compare it to. I can’t quite imagine any sort of situation in life that’s like this, but that sense of actually clearing away the stuff that isn’t serving you, it feels so painful to do, but actually the result is incredibly powerful, isn’t it?
Giles Colborne: Yes, absolutely. I wasn’t tied to the rubbish that I’d written on day 1.
Alison Jones: You had to write that rubbish on day 1. This is a necessary stage, but it doesn’t mean you then feel an obligation to keep it in the book.
Giles Colborne: Exactly that. Being happy about throwing that stuff away was really important, and I think, because I was aware of the editorial constraints I’d set myself, and if you’re trying to get across an idea in a page of text, so you’ve only got a few hundred words to say it, that’s an editorial constraint, so I knew that I had, therefore, to find a way of writing that would allow me to do that, so I was fortunate in that I was aware of that very early on. People I know, and colleagues who have written books that haven’t maybe set out that particular constraint, haven’t come up against that problem quite as hard as I did.
Alison Jones: Yes, that’s really interesting. I’ve just done a similar thing, actually. I got a word limit for each of my questions lately, actually, and I’m finding that’s really helpful. I think constraints are a really great aid to creativity, weirdly. It’s odd, isn’t it? It keeps you focused, I think.
Giles Colborne: It does, and I was very lucky very early on in my career. I was writing a newsletter, and this newsletter was printed, and it was just a simple folded sheet of A3, so I learned very early on what a word limit was. The nature of blogs is it’s not so easy to learn. I learned how much you could pare down a piece of writing and still retain its sense, still get an idea across, still provoke a reaction or response.
Alison Jones: Not just retain the sense, often enhance the sense. Less really is more. Right back to that DVD remote control again, aren’t we?
Giles Colborne: Absolutely, and right back to the sense of why are you writing? You’re not writing to show what a great writer you are, you’re writing to get a response, to provoke something in the mind of the reader, and focusing on that, asking yourself the question, “How does this benefit somebody? What will they do with it?” means that it suddenly becomes clear what you don’t need to include, and what you can live without, and again, it helps you throw that stuff away, and get that sense of lightness and space that you talk about.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Having neatly brought the whole thing around full circle, that’s the point at which we’re going to have to … Honestly, I could talk to you about this all day. It’s fascinating. One thing that I always ask my guests to do is suggest someone else that they think would make a good guest, so somebody with something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who do you think I should have as a guest on the show and why?
Giles Colborne: Goodness me. The person that I turned to, when I was thinking about writing the book, is a guy called Steve Krug. He’s an American, and he wrote a book called Don’t Make Me Think, which in many ways, shares a lot of ground with my ideas, with my book about simplicity. Steve really crafted that book, and it shows. His writing also feels incredibly simple, and I remember, when I got my first copy of that book, because I’ve had several over the years, reading it and going, “Oh my goodness. He’s taken all these complicated academic ideas and he’s wrapped them into this,” and you would never know. The depth in the writing was tremendous, and that’s a book which has had an incredible influence over the field in which I work, and drawn a huge number of people into it.
Steve is a very wise, and humble, and funny man, so any time spent with him is a delight, so Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think
Alison Jones: Wonderful, what a great recommendation. I have heard of the book, but I have never read it, so this is the great joy of hosting this podcast. I get to read some amazing books. Brilliant, thank you so much Giles. If people want to find out more about you, about the book, about the business, where can they go?
Giles Colborne: I guess the first and easiest place to go is CXPartners, that’s C for Charlie, X for X-Ray Partners.co.uk. That’s my company website. You can get in touch with me via that. I love to talk about this stuff, and I love to engage with people about it, and hear their ideas, and see what they’re doing, or hear about their problems, and how they’re tackling them. I’d love to hear from people who’ve listened to this podcast and had questions.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Giles. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Giles Colborne: Thank you very much, indeed. It really has.