UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 978 March 15, 2013

Refining Simplicity

Simplicity is at the core of what we do as user experience professionals. Its importance can be found in almost every design principle and guideline out there, evidenced in the work of everyone from IBM to Dieter Rams. Author Ken Segall even wrote a book about Steve Jobs’ passion for simplicity, titled Insanely Simple.

But before we get started on how we can better refine simplicity in our own work, let’s review what the typical UX process looks like. First, in order to achieve an easy to understand and rewarding user experience, it’s important to understand and identify the problem. For every problem, there are usually two considerations: the various expectations of the user (obvious) and the needs of the business (sometimes not as obvious, but just as important).

Once the problem has been identified, we can begin to work towards an end result, which should ultimately deliver a solid solution. Making this solution as simple as possible is the preferred form of refinement.

Of course, this is all pretty familiar stuff in the field of design and engineering. What can make things difficult are the additional complications that crop up along the way. These can come in the form of formal requirements, meeting notes, or even casual hallway discussion. To limit complexity, I’ve always tried to adhere to a set of rules that help me avoid over-complicating the problem while inspiring simplicity.

Context is King

Keeping things in context keeps us familiar with our surroundings and frees us from worrying about getting lost. Imagine what it would be like driving around with no street signs; no way of knowing where you were or where you were going. People like to know where they are at all times, especially when interacting with technology. Remember, technology is still a learning experience for most people, especially as it continues to evolve.

Being familiar with something allows for a sense of ease that encourages a smooth overall experience. Recently, I was put on hold over the telephone and told there were 17 people in front of me. But what did that mean? How long would it take for each person ahead of me to be taken care of? An easier method would have been to put the wait in context by giving me an approximate time, making it easier for me to determine if I wanted to continue waiting or try again later.

This same principle applies to web design when taking a user through a process. Keep them aware of and familiar with their surroundings so they know what to expect.

The recently released task management software, Kickoff, does a great job of this. I can easily discuss a project with other team members, keeping my notes and screenshots in context with the project I’m working on. Other examples are the contextual menus of Apple OS, Adobe CS, and the innovative Microsoft Office ribbon.

On the flipside, we need to be careful not to assume too much of what the user is expecting to accomplish. Doing so will only confuse the user. So be sure you’ve spent efficient time on identifying the problem.

 

Respect Existing Patterns

Most of the activities we do online have become second nature, often modeled after real life habits (for exampe, to get rid of something in both realms, you place it in a trashcan).

Some common examples of desktop-specific patterns include infinite scroll, breadcrumbs, and progressive disclosure. And in the mobile space, swiping, scrolling, pinching, and holding. While it’s always good to try and experiment with new patterns, such as drag and drop to upload, when you do this be sure to guide the user as much as possible without getting in the way. If a process is more complicated, include helps or hints using progressive disclosure to help them along. In this example, Twitter does an excellent job showing deeper level actions once a user hovers over the message.

Becoming familiar with interaction patterns will also do wonders for your design. Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines are an excellent resource for understanding many common interaction patterns.

Stay Focused and Fragmented

While it’s important that you stay focused on the primary task, be sure to also provide options along the way in case a user veers off course. A primary task can usually be broken down into smaller chunks, while still supporting the overall goal.

For example, creating a new account can be broken into three tasks: 1) Providing the necessary data to create the account, such as an email address and password. 2) Uploading a user photo and additional personal information such as full name, address, phone number, etc. 3) Setting other options and notifications. Identify these early and provide a fragmented approach to complete a task. This way the user can work at his or her own pace and not worry about having to do everything immediately.

Other common implementations of this are the rise of gamification and the profile progress indicator found on LinkedIn. This is a great way to get the user engaged immediately, while still keeping them interested in wanting to give you more information.

Reduce Clutter

This one can be tricky, especially when you work within an organization that already has UI standards in place. Clutter can come in the usual form of copy, disclaimers, and instructions, but also in the way certain buttons, icons, and overall colors are implemented.

Ask yourself if that gradient is really necessary, or if the icon is really needed to convey further definition for a specific action. A rule of thumb here is to only show what you need, when you need to.

Think about using images to convey purpose, as images are easily consumed. Also, our attention spans are getting shorter every day, especially in the current era of digital immediacy. Use as few words as possible and avoid lengthy descriptions. A call to action should be no more than a simple sentence.

In addition, avoid any possible distractions that may derail the user from their original goal or purpose. Starting a project off simply is a great way to allow room for future enhancements. Don’t trap yourself with early unnecessary features.

Keeping It Simple

There are many more methods for refining simplicity found both online and in print. Keeping it simple is not only a great way to ensure that you and those using your product don’t go crazy, it also inspires confidence in the user and shows that you trust them to make the obvious decisions.

In the words of John Maeda, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

 

Image of golden egg courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Jared Lewandowski currently lives in Utah. In 1997, he began his career as a graphic designer in central Nebraska. Over the last 14 years, he's built many successful medical and financial websites and web applications, as well as presented on accessibility and usability to large and small businesses around the United States. He is now a Senior User Experience Manager for Rain.

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Comments

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I would like to share the formal scientific aspect related to simplicity and user satisfaction in the context of smartphone user interface(context is the king!). User satisfaction is critical in the design of a mobile interface because smartphones are very personal. On top of that, user satisfaction occupies central position in usability and user experience. I came across with a great article by researchers Junho H.Choi and Hye-Jin Lee. They proposed the perception of simplicity in the smartphone interface influences positive user satisfaction. Simplicity has been studied in terms of web usability and in the PC context. However, simplicity in the context of smartphone has to be well conceptualized and a comprehensive measurement scale of simplicity need to be defined. On top of that, to what extent simplicity perception affects positive outcome on satisfaction has to be well quantified.
Simplicity in smartphone context is multidimensional. Simplicity and aesthetic visual perception has a direct relationship. However, mobile UI designers and users should always consider the utility of the object. Thus simplicity should be extended to information design and task complexity. Simplicity in Information design is comprised of: reduction (task performance with fewer steps), organization (for e.g. organizing categories in menu), integration and prioritizing. Simplicity in task complexity consists: Component complexity- a function of the number of distinct information cues, coordinative complexity-the range of and interdependencies among the different information clusters and dynamic complexity-ambiguity and uncertainty a user faces.
The researchers proposed a measurement model to be composed these three dimensions. Also the user’ satisfaction is expected to be influenced by the simplicity perception. Survey was carried out and different scales were also adopted to verify the validity and reliability of the three-constructs of the proposed simplicity dimensions. Accordingly, six components (reduction, organization, the 3 complexities, and visual aesthetics) formed a scale for measurement of simplicity perception. Then, through a series of model validation, the hypothesis was accepted that user satisfaction is positively affected by simplicity perception.
Therefore, user satisfaction is an outcome of simplicity perception. Hence UI designers should aim for simple user interface design.

Reference:
Junho H. Choi, Hye-Jin Lee, Facets of simplicity for the smartphone interface: A structural model, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 70, Issue 2, February 2012, Pages 129-142, ISSN 1071-5819, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2011.09.002.
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1071581911001261)

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Pertinent advice about simplicity! I like how the web is going from a land of over-design to a land of minimalism. Less vibrant backgrounds and borders, and more solid colors and shapes. It's actually difficult for me to be simple in my design methodology - I tend to over-complicate things!

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Simplicity depend always on the users, task, circumstances, etc. - that's pretty much the same issue as the myth of intuitive user interfaces - Simplicity and intuition always base on the knowledge, former experience and the expectation of the individual user.

End of last year thought also about UX and Simplicity !
http://ux4dotcom.blogspot.de/2012/12/end-of-year-thoughts-about-ux-and.html

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Simplicity is imho a false positive. In that yes you can de-feature a solution to the point where you end up with a minimal existence and declare "look, i have simplicity in tact" but its equally as important to simplify the feature requirements. In that software often is like a company whereby each release has to show growth of 20% or more and any that stop simply "die" (well perception anyway).

Imho simplicity is the art of domain agnostic in that removing the preconditions around your users and assert that an "Engineer" is no different than a "receptionist" or a "PersonaX" is no different to "PersonaY". There are behavioral traits amongst each individual user slice you have but in turn it comes down to primitive behaviors and pattern recognition.

Simplicity is more about locking onto patterns that have an early adoption cycle and/or tap into existing mental models that others have solicited before you. In the example illustrated above with LinkedIn and giving the user a sense of "done" through progress bar / visualizations.

This can be argued as an established pattern that others have already seeded & solicited prior to your "File-New-Canvas" moment of UI brilliance. Is it simplified? probably but the question is now how would you refine that entire strategy and just that strategy more in that "are we really done?" and what risk to simplicity do you bring to the table post refinement in around is / are the said patterns recognisable and easy to latch onto.

In the end we think and react in patterns as human, everything we do is a pattern and i think simplicity can be misleading into thinking that minimization = simple which in part is true given you reduce complexity *thus sacrificing features to the simplicity gods*.. downside is most solutions today aren't open to feature sacrifice so simplicity patterns need to accomodate "feature density" which is where the real threat to simplicity lies.

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"Imagine what it would be like driving around with no street signs; no way of knowing where you were or where you were going" … analogies may break down here, but I have plenty of friends who ignore street signs and just drive by "feel," going where the mood takes them or taking a turn when something interesting attracts their attention. Part of the fun of life is exploring and serendipity. Why are we afraid to let people explore?

If technology is still a learning experience, will users necessarily know if something is contextual just because we've made it that way? I'm curious if you have any research or academic sources that have explored this concept, or more specific examples.

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Hi Jared,

The ideas you wrote really very useful & and need to understand by every designer. But keep the design simple is still "misunderstood" philosophy, Every Designer has their own meaning about Simplicity