Explain Like I’m Five

When I moved into my first own apartment, I furnished it with IKEA products. (Note: No affiliation.) Today, many years later, I spent half a day buying a new bed and setting it up with help from my son who has just turned five.

Like Apple, IKEA is a brand I’ve been loyal to for more than twenty years now. But even more then its design and simplicity, I love the company’s fixation on constant and never-ending optimization. If you compare a piece of furniture from five years ago with one from the same product line today, you’ll notice many small changes: Screws have been replaced by lighter types, materials have changed to make the package lighter, and the manual has gotten even better. The manual of today’s purchase was so good that my son understood much of it. It’s hard to imagine how they can get even better, but I’m sure they will.

Now IKEA, like other huge companies who value optimization, probably has a huge incentive for making their products and manuals noticeably better and simpler with each iteration: Cost. Quite a lot money can be saved when support calls to the call centres are reduced by even a fraction of a percent. The better the manual, the less calls, the less workforce needed, and so on.

Instant Gratification, Delayed

It’s rather easy to take a chunk of a new client’s content and optimize the hell out of it, rearranging, changing tone, simplifying, etc. But when one grows familiar with a project, the instant gratification of optimizing gets harder to come by. As iterations get smaller, it’s getting harder to shave off one extra word, optimize one line in a drawing. Sometimes it’s getting harder to care. It’s good enough now, right?

There’s a great subreddit, Explain like I’m Five. Explaining complex topics (setting up a bed, making bread, sleeping, going to the moon) to a five-year-old is a wonderfully hard exercise in dumbing down content while staying intelligent. (Which you must, because 5yos are not to be fooled with.)

If using a 5-year-old as imaginary target audience seems too daunting at first, start with a 25-year-old, then work your way down. You might learn more about yourself than your reader in this process.