The Complexity of Simplicity
Every project I've worked on in my 17-year career has had one thing in common. At some point someone says, "It should be simple."
But what does "simple" actually mean?
People can always tell when something is simple, uncomplicated, elegant, not overworked, or a number of other near-synonyms, but can rarely articulate why something is simple. Because simplicity is inherently subjective, achieving it pretty tricky.
Fortunately, the discipline of experience design has emerged as a means to help the world realize its need for simplicity and what it takes to achieve it.
Ten Principles of Simplicity
Here are ten principles that I've found helpful when trying to ensure something stays simple.
1. Meet expectations
If someone goes to your product or website for a specific reason, make sure that you know the reason for their visit and the user can confirm they are in the right place, instantly.
2. Don't overwhelm people
Humans can (consciously) only process small amounts of information at a time, so if you don't quickly make your point, their attention wanders. My favorite technique for not overwhelming people is progressive disclosure. That's a fancy way to describe showing only a tiny bit of information at a time so people don't become overwhelmed and confused. Here's a fantastic example.
3. Only present a few choices at a time
This is directly related to #2. Studies show that if you give people too many choices, they will "make no choice at all. So, it's often better to remove features rather than add them. Why not focus on creating the minimum viable product, get it to market, then improve on it (or trash it completely in favor of a better solution)? Constantly adding features only ensures your product will never be complete and you'll run out of money, all while confusing the heck out of intended users.
4. No jargon or compu-speak
Talk to people like they are human, and don't mire yourself in jargon. For example, rather than just label a form "Email," how about making the label a bit more personal or in-brand? Wufoo does a great job with their form labels: "Enter your email address so we can get a hold of you. Don't worry. This info is sacred to us. We won't ever sell or abuse it."
5. Consider the abilities of different users
Dr. Jennifer Romano-Bergstrom has done some fascinating research on differences in website usability performance based on users' ages. One thing I found particularly interesting is that older users tend to ignore content that is located in the periphery of a website. Take into account these differences and make sure your product accounts for them.
6. Visual clarity
Clarity in visual design is critical for simplicity. Users assess the credibility of something very quickly, so if there isn't a clear visual hierarchy, people will get confused. But keep in mind, just because something looks simple, doesn't mean it is simple.
7. Understand the problem
Mads Kristensen put it best when he said, "… if you cannot take a step back and get a good feeling for the problem, then you don't understand it enough to see a simple solution … If you don't understand the problem you are trying to solve, then you probably cannot solve it."
8. It's been tested
If someone doesn't want to test something, that person is probably cowardly, lazy, or arrogant (and don't let them play the budget card, you can test things for next to nothing). Creation and objectivity usually don't go hand in hand. You have to test with users.
9. Account for context
How you use something differs greatly depending on the time of day, your location, and your culture. For example, try to think how someone might use your product while in a hurry, or perhaps on an iPhone, or while sharing it with a friend. They might also use it completely differently the second time than the first. Time of day, repetition, cultural nuances, and location all drive the context of how your product will be used. Understand it, it's important.
10. It's not just usable
Just because someone can complete a task, doesn't mean it was a pleasant or easy experience. Be careful not to put too much emphasis on task completion at the expense of a good experience.
How can We Shoot for Simplicity?
Everyone wants stuff that's simple to use, yet simplicity can be very elusive. To find ways to streamline and simplify, it helps to take a look at a project's framework; controlling the expectations and processes makes achieving the desired outcome much easier.
In the video The ROI of User Experience" by Dr. Susan Weinschenk, she highlights three causes for project failure (she also breaks down the value of UX much more eloquently than I can, so be sure to give it a watch). I've cited these (and added a fourth) below, with recommendations on how to address such challenges.
1. Communicate clearly
Lack of clear communication breeds confusion. Establish a project leader and communication process at the onset, be diligent about following it, and keep track of decisions that have been made.
2. Visualize success
Take the time at the front end of a project to define what a successful launch will look like. Answer questions like these to help keep you on the right path: What is the business goal we're trying to achieve? Who is the user, and what are their goals? What does the product actually do and not do?
3. Align your stakeholders
- Make everything matter. It's your job to care about every detail, because if you don't, who will?
- Remove technical debt. The time maintaining an antiquated or poorly constructed system can hamstring future efforts to create simple solutions.
- Keep things from getting bloated. If the people using your product don't need or want something, isn't it just a distraction? Streamline!
- Plan for executive buy in. Stakeholders need to be heard; involve them early on in the process. Good communication and alignment on goals will assure a better end result.
4. Seek outside opinions, because we can't do it all ourselves
I make music, and often I'll write a song that I'm initially thrilled with. After a day or two goes by, I'll return to the song only to be completely underwhelmed with the original recording. Things are always more exciting when we experience them for the first time; as we focus on something, we have less of a visceral reaction to it, second guess ourselves, and lose interest. Get your idea into a prototype quickly, and show it to others.
Perhaps the easiest thing one can do to ensure simplicity is to constantly ask, "Why?"
- Why are we adding this?
- Why are we taking this away?
- Why would users care?
- Why would people share this?
- Why will people do this?
- Why can they do this?
- Why will they still do this?
- Why aren't we testing this?
The smallest details can make the biggest difference. If you come to an impasse, ask the person who's been designated as the leader to make a decision and move on. You can always test your hypothesis later.
Complex is easy, simple is hard. But, with intense focus, good communication, clarity, and bravery, getting there doesn't have to be so difficult.
Einstein said it best: "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction."
Image of flower courtesy Shutterstock.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Andrew Turrell lives in Los Angeles and is Director of User Experience at RED Interactive Agency. He is also an adjunct professor of Interaction Design at the University of Baltimore M.S. in Interaction Design and Information Architecture program. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewturrell, or check out his LinkedIn profile.