The Future of Simplify

Since Simplify Gmail launched over a year ago, more than 150,000 people have tried it, and about half of them are still active users. I’m delighted with how many people I’ve reached and what I’ve been able to do so far. But I want to expand what Simplify can do, and do it better.

These days, we’re spending even more time on our computers than usual, which means the cost of bad design is even greater to our productivity and mental health. I recently left my job to turn Simplify into a company, so that I can streamline more of the products we use most.

This newsletter will primarily focus on the nitty-gritty of simplifying products and sparking conversations about the principles of good design as they relate to the products we use daily. But first I want to tell you a bit about my vision for Simplify, the company.

Simplify’s mission is to make existing products more simple, capable, and respectful.

Why it matters:

Bad design is everywhere. I’m equating bad design with anything that makes a product harder to use or less user-centric. Bad design can occur for a number of reasons including but not limited to:

  • Our needs as users are not well understood, prioritized, or aligned with the company’s goals.

  • Entropy: The natural decline of products over time as the vision decays or blurs and new features are conceived without consideration of the whole and added faster than the system’s overall design and architecture can evolve to support them.

  • Good design is hard. Good design is more than making a product pretty. It is about having the right capabilities in an intuitive, respectful, and well-crafted offering. I hope to expand on this topic in future posts.

Bad design has real costs. It costs us our productivity, our attention, our sanity, our privacy, and more. The Center for Humane Technology puts it this way:

Even with the best intentions, social media companies are under immense pressure to prioritize engagement and growth. This creates a race for human attention that has unleashed invisible harms in society.

Most companies are under this pressure, not just social media companies. I should be able to read my email without having to ignore a sea of unread notifications and new feature promotions or worrying about email trackers spying on me.

As users, we are at a supreme disadvantage in the battle for our attention. Our time, attention, productivity, and joy are invaluable and they are worth fighting for.

As users, we can’t fix bad design (until now)

  • Sending feedback just feels like screaming into the wind. 

  • We can rarely change software we use on our own.

  • Even when we can modify our apps, doing so takes time and expertise and those modifications may break over time if not well supported.

  • We can “vote with our feet” and switch products, but there isn’t always a better option or we’re locked into our current option.

Simplify to the rescue! Sometimes, it’s easier to fix the system as an outsider.

The obvious ways to tackle this problem is from the inside. I’ve tried that. As much as I loved Google Inbox (a product and team I co-founded but left before launch), what launched was a well executed and polished but watered-down version of the original vision.

It isn’t that the teams behind these products don’t care. They care deeply. But big products have big teams and are often inside big companies with their own bigger (and often unclear) priorities. It is messy.

Another option is to build a startup that creates a competing product. This might work but…

  1. Products like Gmail are actually pretty good already.

  2. Replacing them entirely would be a lot more work which would make the product more expensive. And while it may be better in some areas, it will likely be worse in others (see #1) meaning you are paying more and possibly getting less overall.

  3. Shipping a new product asks more of you, the user. I don’t want to ask you to change what product you use or migrate your data.

  4. Finally, I want to push the big companies to do better by showing them how their products can be better. It is easier for big companies to dismiss small competitors as niche products that don’t consider the full complexity of their product. What if the upstart is their product?

So I’m trying a unique approach. I’m building software (browser extensions for now) that modify the products you use. While browser extensions that modify apps aren’t new, there aren’t many that are high quality, well maintained, and opinionated. 

I’m fighting for everyone but focused on specific user profiles

I’m focused on people that fit any of the following profiles (all of which fit for me):

  1. Maximizers: Those that seek to be the most productive in using an app.

  2. Form and function: Those that value really good design over good-enough design without having to sacrifice robust capabilities.

  3. Privacy-concerned: Those that care about privacy. Privacy isn’t about keeping everything private (an email app where you can’t send or receive messages?) — it is about the user having control over what is shared and how it is used. And exercising that control shouldn’t be a lot of work.

  4. Distracted: Those that have a hard time staying focused and productive in a noisy interface, or in a product engineered to keep us glued when we want to move on.

Finally, I want to ensure the longevity of Simplify and maximize both value and impact

I cannot do what I want with Simplify if I continue to give it away for free. It is not sustainable. Building on top of software I don’t own requires on-going support.

Charging for software is not only a way of ensuring it continues to function, it is also a way of raising expectations–in a healthy way. I want to know that Simplify is good enough that you would pay for it.

  • I only want to build quality software that people highly value and can depend on for years to come. 

  • I want to include support and be responsive to your questions, issues, and feedback.

  • I am committed to never earning money through ads or selling any kind of data (I don’t even collect any data to sell, not even anonymized analytics). The only statistics I have are what the browser web stores tell me about how many people have installed the extension and how many are still using it.

  • While a high price can increase your perception of value, I don’t want to play mind games. I’d rather more people be able to afford the software than try and build a luxury brand or maximize profits.

With all of this in mind, I have decided to convert Simplify Gmail to be a paid extension later this year. 

  • It is critical to Simplify’s success that you feel like you are getting a great deal.

  • The current plan is to use a subscription model instead of a one time purchase given the work involved in maintaining and improving on modifications to products that constantly change themselves. 

  • I have not finalized pricing but if I can keep 5-10% of the current customer base, I believe I can sustain Simplify on as little as $1-2 / month (paid annually). If more of you sign up, I’d like to look into reducing the price the following year.

  • I want to reward those that spread the word. I’m currently thinking of something like 3 months free for every paying customer you refer.

And that’s the why, how, and what of Simplify. I welcome you to send feedback to hi@simpl.fyi and I promise future posts will be about Simplify Gmail v2 which is coming along nicely.

Until then, keep it simple.

– Michael


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