Simplicity vs dumbing down. What designers can do

There is a fundamental difference between clean and simple interfaces and deliberate digital dumbing down.

Refined interfaces have made technology more inclusive. We no longer need technical know-how to use an app or to navigate a website and, although we are still far from the finish line, we are slowly tackling the the problem of technological elitism. Technology has become accessible to virtually any skill level and proficiency is now reserved only to those who wish to become experts.

The dumbing-down of what we (ironically) call smart technologies involves the oversimplification of their functionality. While the focus on usability has allowed users to achieve their goals more efficiently and with more satisfaction, the obsession over ease of use has restricted users’ choices to allegedly remove impractical barriers. We have replaced many user operated functions with automated functions, thus trading in a product’s flexibility for mass adoption.

Usability is one of the pillars of good design. User research and usability testing are gaining the right relevance in the design process and early focus on end users and their needs is driving new (and, more importantly, effective) design methods.

However, the intellectual undermining of the standard user is a whole other matter. While technologies rightly serve the purpose of simplifying complex tasks, exempting the user from any cognitive effort risks crippling our brain power.

Intuitiveness, ease of use, minimal visual noise are all to be applauded. However, they are not patently beneficial. The standardization of the products we use inevitably leads to the standardization of our mental abilities. We recognise patterns across different products and devices and we respond to them with the same gestures we have now familiarized ourselves with.

We inevitably choose the easiest path and this tendency presents no intrinsic problem. But the ubiquity of (too) easy pathways is growing faster than our ability to balance out ease and dullness.

We are indeed reducing usability obstacles, but at the same time we have lost the user’s original contribution to the product. If users have no options to choose from, they are no longer in control. And if they are not in control they are barred from exploring the product and from using it as they please.

By putting constraints on the users’ freedom to bend a system or product to their needs, we are missing out on their fresh perspective on the many unexpected possibilities of what we have designed. Have we confused flat design for flat users? Where reducing visual noise moved technology from the realm of specialists to that of the mainstream user, it has also paddled along the reductive understanding of both users and products.

Designers walk the fine line between optimization and oversimplification. We think we have blasted through the barrier of technical illiteracy. But is that really so?

Has oversimplification actually taught anything to users or has it merely hidden the barriers behind simple and standardized interfaces?

Clean and fresh interface

Surely it’s not a designer’s responsibility to teach anyone anything directly. However, once you start treating users as wantons, users will start to think as such. Many would not be interested in or need specialized technical know-how, but blindly limiting the user’s choices is too high of a price to pay.

The immediacy of smart technology might very well generate higher revenue, but it has created two categories of users: the frustrated power user and the forever first-time user — who, one might add, is not much of a user anyway.

The power user feels simplification as a constraint. If there were multiple layers of functionality, one might applaud the versatility of simplicity in the name usability. Excel is a case in point: from simple tables to complex formulas, virtually everyone has used it one way or another.

But if a system cannot perform complex actions while at the same time being simple, either we need two different products for different kinds of users or we risk losing the power user, who will gladly turn to lower-level interfaces.

On the other hand, the average users rest on our laurels, some with complacency, others only half realizing they are being stripped of the journey to become power users.

Everyone wants to carry out their everyday tasks with minimum hassle and this, in a way, is what technology does: It comes to our aid. However, this need not entail dumbing it down. The best product is not necessarily the product anyone can use. On the contrary, the best product is the right product for the right user.

There is nothing inherently wrong with asking for the user’s attention. A slightly more complex encounter with a system is well worth it. In numbers, it might be the winning strategy to retain users.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s a long-term plan to tackle computer illiteracy. Without giving in to the moralistic rant against technology, one could hardly say that using emojis counts as IT literacy.

Designers are a vital part of this process. As such, they have to decide whether they want to keep users as barely first-time users or if they want to contribute to the users’ understanding of the system or product they are using. It is one thing to make some tasks easier; avoiding mental and physical efforts at all costs is a different matter.

We rely on technology in many aspects of our lives and, thanks to the improved usability, increasingly more people have access to what once was unknown to many. Simplifying to allow a wider understanding need not be synonym of dumbing down nor do we have to prioritize polish over performance. But many feel like simplification is chipping away at our capacity for critical thinking.

Emule

Basic knowledge of the inner workings of a product is not an unreasonable request. Fifteen years ago anyone under age 20 could use Emule, with all its information dense content and certainly not intuitive interface. Learning how to use it wasn’t too much of a strain on our brain. The result was a better grasp on what we were using.

Any app today often requires less effort, but “quick and easy” at all costs is a gamble on the trivialization of technology. If the functionalities some designers deem unnecessary prove to be the essentials elements to reduce usability obstacles without making user and product ultimately reductive, is it so wrong to trade in a bit of effort for a better result?