Sometimes You Just Gotta Say, "No!"

Twice this year I received phone calls from groups interested in using our camp. We scheduled a tour, we walked, we talked and, by the end of the visit, both groups made generous offers to use our facilities. Both were turned down.

This is one of the toughest and trickiest things I have to do as camp director -- say “no.” And it’s not just any ol’ “no” that makes it difficult.

The “no” because we can’t is easy.

The “no” because we won’t is the most difficult.

Take this case study on Google (authored by Breakthrough Simplicity) as in interesting case-in-point.

When Google introduced its now-famous search engine, it was not the first to offer search to consumers. But, Google’s version quickly left competitors behind, gaining mainstream acceptance. And as many observers have noted in the years since, the simplicity of Google’s home page had much to do with its appeal and success. People rate it the highest of any brand out there in terms of delivering a clean, simple, rewarding experience.

But why was Google the only one to make its search page so simple and uncluttered? Shouldn’t other search firms have done the same with their offerings? If, in this case, less is clearly more, then why not just offer less? It would seem to be not only the smartest but also the easiest option for a company producing a search page.

But in fact, it can be much harder to simplify—which may explain why Google was the only one to offer such a clean page. So how did Google resist the temptation to add on and complicate? A recent interview with the Mountain View, California-based company about this subject revealed a couple of surprising things.

Google didn’t just stumble into its home page design; it didn’t arrive at simplicity by default. The company actually developed a rigorous system that imposed tight restrictions upon what could and could not be added to the page. The company’s leaders had to stand firm against Google’s own creative and well-meaning engineers. And in some cases, they even had to defy the wishes of customers.

This ongoing task of holding the line against complexity—which often involves being willing to “just say no” to additional features, design flourishes, and other potential complications—often fell to Marissa Mayer, the company’s Director of Consumer Web Products. When Mayer was asked about how she managed this, she used a word you tend to hear from theatrical casting directors, not tech managers. Mayer explained that any potential new feature hoping to get on the Google home page must go through an “audition.” First, the feature is tried out on Google’s advanced search page to see how it performs there. But even if the new idea demonstrates its viability in advanced search, it still goes through a tough scoring system developed by Google.

Here’s how the scoring system works:

1. They assign a “point” for each change in type style, type size or color.

2. They add the points; the maximum allowed for a promotion is 3 points.

The goal for the home page is the fewest possible number of points. As Mayer says, “More points = less simplicity.”

This stripped-down approach could easily lead to a home page that would be pristine but devoid of humanity. Google’s page is anything but. Millions of people log onto the Google homepage just to see the ever-changing dressing of their logo. Google understood that while many elements on the home page could be considered extraneous, it was important to have something—even just one small, playful touch—that would convey the brand personality.

The company is so focused on simplicity that it refuses to be led astray—even by its own customers. For example, when Google surveys users to see if they wanted more search results per page, they invariably say yes—who wouldn’t want more results to choose from? But, Mayer says, “we don’t give it to them.” Google knows offering more results will take longer to load and that will slow down and ultimately diminish the user’s experience—even if most people don’t realize this. “Customers often don’t understand the consequences of their choices, but it is our job to do so,” Mayer says. “We figured out that 10 results per page is the right number. We don’t change that.”

In other words, Google has the guts to give customers less, even when they ask for more.

In my experience, too many camps get thrown off track by wanting to do and be more than they are able to handle or their mission allows for. How about your camp?

Are you staying true to your mission?

Are you saying no when it’s needed?

Are you passing on the ‘good’ so that you do the ‘great’?

If summer camp is what you do best, are you distracted from that with other, arguably less important things?

*More on this Google study can be found in the book, "Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity" by Irene Etzkorn.

Cory Harrison has directed resident camp programs for more than 10 years with The Salvation Army and the YMCA. Currently, he is the Director of the YMCA Camp Benson in Northwest, IL. He is a life-long camper, an avid reader, and daily cereal eater. Reach him via Facebook: