I have been practicing the rule of three on a variety of occasions (e.g., business, research, blog, product narrative) for 10 years since (if I remember correctly) "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs" first told me that having a clear list of 3-4 key messages has made Steve's presentation attractive.
But I frequently feel 3-4 are still a lot. Here, a main point of this article would be we need to radically distill the messages to one essential idea. Yes, this one thing.
We abstract a lot
Humans are too good at abstracting complex information and instantly processing them without the details. For instance, we can apply this mental/behavioral shortcut as a tool when it comes to habit-formation—An desired action will be automatically triggered if the action is obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.
Meanwhile, in the context of product development and content creation, these characteristics commonly surface as a gap between "producers" and "consumers," which can be read as any type of sender-receiver relationships such as reader-writer, artist-audience, engineer-user, and designer-client; one side cares so much about the details, whereas the receivers rarely recognize them when they interact with a deliverable.
In fact, the gap is the beauty of our life. Thanks to the shortcuts, we can feel the complex world so natural, and we can efficiently adapt to unforeseen circumstances. We don't need to have a deep understanding of history to enjoy a museum, for example, and a useful mobile app doesn't require us to have programming knowledge.
However, it is also possible for creators to abuse these characteristics so they can manipulate the consumers without letting them realize the fact.
We cannot "read" everything
To give an example, if I were an unethical blogger, I believe the most "efficient" way of publishing articles is to spend 80% of my time on deciding a title and creating a fancy thumbnail while putting as much advertisements as possible to the website, because we know people can be easily hooked by something attractive due to the shortcuts. That way, I can maximize CTR, and I could be more profitable as a consequence.
Importantly, I already know people don't read everything written in an article. Over the last couple of years, I've been sharing my blog articles with my social networks on Twitter and LinkedIn once it's published. Thankfully, I found several people saying "Hey Takuya, I read your blog," but such a comment typically means "I read the title of your article" or "I read the first couple of sentences of the article." The fact becomes obvious when I dive deep into Google Analytics1 and hear a bit more about the topic I wrote2. That's what the shortcuts made possible.
Thus, adding more ads and spending less effort on the content itself should be the best strategy, right?
Of course, this is a hypothetical example, and I definitely don't expect you to read my blog entirely and don't see blogging as an income source. To be fair, I also don't read every single sentence on the internet, and I don't pay too much attention when I listen to a daily podcast episode.
That said, two derived facts, (1) people do ignore/overlook the details and (2) technically, it's easy to navigate them to a desired direction, are associated with a deep problem in a broader context.
The producer-consumer gap
On social networks, for example, people tend to make a strong argument without understanding the full context/content of what's been shared by the others; we can easily come up with our own opinion after reading the first couple of sentences or paragraphs. Ultimately, this phenomenon can be utilized to spread misinformation, and it leads the internet to be much more polarized at the end of the day.
A key lesson from the previous examples is that there is always a certain degree of gap between producer and consumer e.g., in terms of time spent, expected quality, and interpretation. Eventually, it possibly causes undesired consequences unless the producers aggressively simplify and polish their message with proper ethics in their mind. In fact, I occasionally see the readers of my blog interpret my statement in a completely unexpected way, which is generally eye-opening but sometimes makes me anxious.
We could blame consumers for the lack of their literacy, but again, it's completely normal as long as they are human. We are a living thing that is designed to make a rough decision based on limited information; we can get a sense of satisfaction and/or confidence much quicker than we think.
Therefore, for the reasons that I mentioned above, radically simplifying messages attached to a deliverable would be a critical first step we (as a producer) could take, so that the output leaves no space for confusing and misleading its consumers.
To be a good producer, I want to continuously educate myself and practice "doing less" to achieve an essential thing in the shortest path. It is really hard though; I definitely wrote too much on this article than I originally planned, even though there is only one idea I want to convey.
Furthermore, in practice, we must be an ethical product developer who does not misuse the shortcuts. Creators can easily fall into a "selfish" situation that leans toward intrinsic motivation/objective and forgets to see a product through the lens of users. In reality, however, the end users won't care about the things behind the scene, like how much time, money, effort you spent and what motivated the developers to create the product.
Sometimes the gap simply causes a failure of a product. Or, those who do know the characteristics may purposely design a product so it brings an immediate satisfaction to you. I don't want to be a part of either situation, and that's why I emphasize the importance of the ethical mindset when it comes to radical simplicity.
1. Unsurprisingly, an average session duration over approx 1,000 weekly sessions is less than a minute. ↩
2. This is not a complaint, and I'm rather enjoying the situation. I share my blog articles for triggering a random conversation with my friends/colleagues, and hence, when someone mentions something about my blog, the success criterion is already met. ↩
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Last updated: 2022-09-02
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.
Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.