The best lesson from Disrupt: Simplify

The best new products do complicated things simply. Just don't look behind the curtain.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

The presentations at this year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference were uniformly good to excellent. Of them, the best shared one thing in common: simplicity. Despite having leading-edge or even sci-fi-level technology, the products that shone the brightest at Disrupt were incredibly easy to understand, and they'll be easy for consumers to adopt and use as well.

This focus on simplicity was refreshing. While Max Levchin and Peter Thiel made a point, early in the conference, of saying that true tech innovation in the U.S. is dead in part because it makes so much business sense now to solve simple technology problems instead of bigger ones, several of the Disrupt startups displayed a rare finesse for blending new technology with design and interface. No matter how much or how little truly groundbreaking technology these companies employed, this focus on building complex tools that are simple to use is an advancement itself.

Three new products illustrate this best:

Trello is a new "list of lists" Web and mobile app from Fog Creek Software's Joel Spolsky. It's designed to make it easy for small teams to create and manage shared lists of to-do items and projects. It's easy to grasp (easier than it is to explain), easy to use, instantly shareable, and far simpler in presentation than it deserves to be considering the amount of information it can coordinate. (It's live now.)

Trello can help teams track and assign lots of project pieces. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

GoInstant is a co-browsing service. From a single URL, the service lets people on different computers share one browsing session. Every user gets his or her own mouse cursor (color-coded and name-tagged) and all users see the same thing. It looks far easier to set up than WebEx or GoToMyPC, more fun, and mostly, just plain simple. Over-the-Net support and demos should be a lot easier with this. Unfortunately, it's still in closed testing.

GoInstant lets several users share one browsing session. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Vocre may have built the Universal Translator. Vocre

Vocre is a translation app for the iPhone. You speak into it, it converts your speech into text, and then you point your phone at the person you want to speak to and it reads the text in translation. It works both ways. While the speech-to-text and translation software are both Star Trek-level, the interface is based on how you hold and move your phone. It takes socially awkward button presses out of the equation and turns the phone into something as close to the Universal Translator as consumers can get. The app is available now.