UPS has over 94,000 delivery vehicles, 282 airplanes (the 8th largest fleet in the world) and over 425,000 employees across the globe. Over the years they have developed one of the most sophisticated hand held devices ever devised. By the end of 2008 they will have over 70,000 of them deployed worldwide. They call it the Delivery Information Acquisition Device, DIAD for short. The latest iteration has 3 different radio types and is the instant entry point for a tracking system that averages over 10 million tracking requests a day.

So how do you put a device that sophisticated in the hands of so many people without bringing the company to a crawl or opening a small university to train everyone? Make the interface dead simple.

Every time I see those DIAD devices in the hands of my UPS delivery person it reminds me of an experience I had with a UPS driver almost 8 years ago. As I watched him click clack away at the large array of buttons on this intimidating notebook sized device with such extraordinary speed and precision I had to ask him “How hard is that thing to use?” What he showed me has stuck with me ever since. On the small monochromatic screen, just above 2 sets of blue up/down arrows were the words “Hit the blue up.” — “It’s great” he said “totally dumbed down.” Now, he did not say “dumbed down” in a negative way. He was clearly proud about his speed and proficiency on this complex piece of electronics that anyone would be overwhelmed by at first (or tenth) glance. The story has stuck in my mind because that phrase, “dumbed down,” continues to come up so often over the years.

When we get worried about “dumbing it down” too much it is often our own intellect we are trying to protect.

When I tell this story to clients or prospects the response I often hear is: “No, no… I don’t want to dumb it down. Our customers are smarter, more savvy, more…” It got me thinking, when we get worried about dumbing something down, whose intelligence are we worried about insulting? Do you think the UPS drivers think they have dumbed things down for him or her? Or does the extreme simplification make the cumbersome manageable?s When someone visits your web site and there is language that makes each move incredibly clear do you think the visitor feels insulted?

I will be the first to admit, it is a difficult battle. We all want to push the envelope of design and, enjoying/exploring a beautifully designed website is great fun (and a great experience) for many of us. In fact, it should not have to be one or the other. The challenge we all face is to make something so incredibly powerful and complex, like the UPS DIAD, yet make it so extraordinarily accessible that it takes seconds for the user to put that power to use.

Whether it is a multi billion dollar global communication system or making it extraordinarily clear where someone can find something in your catalog, website or store you are not insulting their intelligence, you simply give them ones less thing they have to work through.

Not dumbing it down would have caused the tightest ship in the shipping business to sink just when they were trying to make a huge innovation leap. How many businesses do not embrace new technology because they fear that doing so would bring the company to a grinding halt? If the new way is more painful than the old way then the old way will always be too easy to fall back on.

How much did UPS save in training/support/complaint/re-training costs by dumbing it down? Hundreds of millions at least. How much did making the interface dead simple change the kind of real time information it wanted back from the devices? None.

Whatever it is you are offering, selling or trying to convey, no matter how complex it may be, how do you explain it as easily as Hit the blue up?