03/09/2011 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Marketers: Think Twice Before You Label Your Service 'Simple'

Long ago, Alfred Hitchcock directed a famous movie titled The 39 Steps. Apparently, this film is remembered fondly by someone in marketing at AT&T. They've just introduced AT&T Unified Messaging, a new service to hear your emails read to you, which also has about 39 steps. They must appreciate dramatic irony because they tout this service as "simplifying your life."

This is a classic case of software engineers adding functions and steps until a good idea turns into an unusable one. The three main steps to activate this new offering have dozens of steps beneath them (the document design equivalent of bait and switch). In fact, the number of steps and sub-steps obscures the real gem of the underlying idea -- you can hear your emails read to you! Dial one number and hear both voice mail and emails from your many different phones in one place.

Yet instead of providing just one way of setting up the service -- going online -- they offer two other ways. The audience for this service overlaps fully with people who have access to computers. By definition, these potential customers have multiple phones since this service is all about linking voice mail accounts. To think that these consumers couldn't find access to a computer is just plain silly. Instead, AT&T misses the clear opportunity to eliminate two-thirds of the complexity by eliminating two of the enrollment methods.

Even following just the online setup involves a treasure hunt to collect separate items. Consumers must find the "separate Welcome letter" which supposedly contains three key pieces of data, follow the Quick Start Guide and then go to a website. The kicker is that if you have a Mac, you are out of luck. Those arriving at the website are informed that the service won't work for Apple -- ironic, since AT&T was the sole service provider for the Apple iPhone until just recently.

Each of these documents is filled with jargon and confusing phrases, such as: "your landline and wireless must be within the same service area." What does that mean? Is that an esoteric way of saying the two phones must have the same area code? If so, say that. Or, does it mean that your mobile phone must be in close physical proximity to your landline? And what's the service area of my home landline? As far I know, I can call Kuala Lumpur.

Care to guess the URL for the website? It's "Um?" This is the exact sentiment I had after slogging through these steps.

If you get past all of that, more confusion awaits when you get to the phone tree for the actual service.


AT&T has obviously never heard that humans cannot remember lists of more than seven items. The main menu has nine options, yet mysteriously no number three. Similarly, each item has as many as 10 sub-choices.

Features, functions, steps and processes trampled over a good idea until it became unrealistically difficult to use. As is often the case, the convoluted result was then given a false moniker involving the word "simple" in the hope that people wouldn't notice that they were embarking on an odyssey of confusion and frustration.

The mere mention of the word "simple" is a hook for purchasers and for that reason advertisers and marketers stock their copy with the words: "easy," "convenient," "quick," and "simplified." However, slapping the label "simple" on something that looks like the instruction manual for the space shuttle will surely backfire when purchasers feel betrayed. Practicing "faux simplicity" is even worse than being just plain complicated.