As a marketing professional at a large company for many years, I—along with my peers—always struggled to find ways to differentiate our products. What whizzy new feature can we include that no one else has? But occasionally a product comes along and reminds me that a key differentiator can be simplicity itself.

I’ve been a long time subscriber and fan of Netflix. I recently decided to get their movie streaming service and ordered the Roku hardware device which connects to my TV. With this device I’m able to instantly stream movies from the Netflix website to my TV. The service is free to anyone subscribing to Netflix. When I opened the package and began reading the instructions for set-up I was astonished to find there were only 7 steps involved to install and begin watching movies.

I’m a big fan of simplicity. I think Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is a great reminder to us that with technology, just because I can doesn’t mean I should. More features and functionality is not always a good thing. I always rant and rave at the nightmare most high-tech products put us through to use them—how many features on my digital camera will never be touched by me. I eventually figured out how to do the basic things I care about and that’s all I ever use. Perhaps a better example is when I bought a new wireless router last year, I gave up trying to install it after an hour of hopelessly trying to configure and assign a password to the thing. I had to call someone I know and pay them for an hour’s work to get it working. So the wireless router actually cost me $50 more than what I paid for the device and caused me aggravation besides. I thought maybe it was just me—that I was incompetent—not being able to install a wireless router. But I felt better when a friend, who is technically savvy and likes playing with these types of devices, had to call the manufacturer’s support line twice while trying to configure a wireless router for himself.

So when I started connecting the Roku device for movie streaming I was a little skeptical—would these 7 steps be easy and would they actually work? As it turns out they were easy and did work exactly as the documentation indicated. The set up was really only 3 steps; connect the device to the TV and plug it in, connect the device to the wireless router, and finally, activating my service. The documentation and pictures were simple and clear. Everything worked exactly as the instructions indicated. The final and pleasantly surprising step was instructions to use the remote.

roku-controllerThe simplicity concept carried through to the design of the remote. Yes, I have yet another remote but this one is simplicity itself—only 4 instructions and I was masterly using the remote. The remote has only 9 buttons of which 4 are arrow buttons and one is select. I can just hear the debates that went on with the development team; everyone having an opinion about what features must be included, especially managers or influential engineers. I’ve spent hours in those debates, and without sufficient user data I could never counter their arguments. Yes, each feature would appeal so some users—but taken all together they become overwhelming and satisfy no one. But to Roku’s credit, they kept the remote simple with just the right functions and no more.

The benefits of keeping the product simple to install, configure and use are enormous. Think about it: low cost of manufacturing, low support costs—few calls, and of course low cost of the product. And then there are the marketing benefits. I tell all my friends how easy it was to set up and use and how great the service is. Simplicity itself can be a key differentiator and yet it is sometimes as elusive as those other whizzy differentiators we all look for. To make the trade-offs and deliver simplicity requires a real understanding about your customer’s behaviors, values and intents. And the only way to get that understanding is go out and spend time with them.