UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 970 March 5, 2013

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.

Why?

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.

That's Simple

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)

User Profile

At RP3 Agency, Jay is responsible for ownership of the customer experience in the cross channel environment. From strategy, through execution and development, he focuses on empathy for the end user through data analysis, research, testing, and brand experience mapping. He appreciates that, from top to bottom, RP3 is dedicated to great work. The M&Ms and beer are nice, too. You can follow him on Twitter @jayselway.

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Comments

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This is a great article and it's nice to see colleagues willing to stand up and say "more is less." Not surprisingly, clients don't always see it that way.

An interesting aspect to the complexity discussion is the idea that for a product (or site) to evolve it must add features/functionality. I read an interesting article once laying this out for software development. If we use Microsoft Word as an example lets say that 80% of users use about 20% of the available functionality. That means that 80% of the functions available in Word aren't used. Ever. But to create a perception of value new features are added with every version.

New features add complexity to the software both in the source code and user experience. Common sense might dictate that you could effectively remove features, concentrate on making the frequently used functions more accessible thus making the application more efficient and faster. However, that would be a tough sell to consumers who view the additional features as value-added even though they never use them, or even know what they are.

In ecommerce it's a similar story. In an attempt to differentiate ourselves from competitors, there's a constant pressure from the business to add features (complexity). It's a conundrum for UX folks who want to simplify the experience at the same time they're pressured to expand the feature set. The business views the additional features/interactions as potential revenue enhancers and it's difficult to prove causation vs correlation one way or the other.

Anyway, the moral of the story is balancing business needs/wants with UX needs is tricky. You're article provides a nice summary of the complexity issue and ways to minimize their impact.

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One aspect of "simplicity" that I think often gets ignored is that in making something appear simple, you can in fact make it more complicated for people trying to make a decision about whether to spend the time investigating it. This may be why achieving simplicity is elusive - because quite often simplicity isn't what most designers think it is.

This is one of the reasons why link-rich home pages, for example, generally do better when it comes to bounce rates and conversion metrics than "simple" home pages that don't offer clues to what's inside. With the exception of very well-known brands, it's rare to see a visually "simple" home or landing page survive for long once the metrics come in. A real-world analogy is in high street retail: given the choice between a shop with a window showing some things you might like the look of, and a shop with just a door and nothing else - which do you think gets more footfall? Note that you don't have to see people acting on the "extra" bits in a design (any more than you are necessarily going to buy that exact jacket in the shop window) - it's the "information scent" that's important.

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Very nice article. Great job!!

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Thanks for the kind words! Glad you guys enjoyed the article.

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Awesome! this is very beautiful! we are getting closer between web and software development

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Good job!
The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak by looking on the context and focusing on the content. Simplicity is about having a deep understanding and appreciation of the users you are trying to assist, about having a great understanding of the subject matter you are trying to communicate.
End of last year I also thought about UX and Simplicity: http://ux4dotcom.blogspot.de/2012/12/end-of-year-thoughts-about-ux-and.html

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Really nice article! We are usually developing and focused in technology experiences even when building for users. Having a checklist is a must for most of projects and ideas.