Simplicity seems to be the one thing we all try to accomplish. Though users seek for rich and satisfying experiences, and with this often comes complexity. For what kind of simplicity do we actually looking for? Is simplicity really an absolute quality of design?
[This was first published on digitalwaveriding.com]
The Complexity of Simple UX Design
In a world that becomes increasingly complex, simplicity is a quality which more than anything else is sought in design. Though is it really just about making things simpler? The simpler the better? Unfortunately not. There are many reasons why we even love complexity. The context and how we use something defines how we perceive the complexity of a tool .
Think about daily rituals like making a cup of coffee. For some a complex ceremony of making a perfect cup adds pleasure and even a sense of being part of a culture. Others seek convenience and some caffeine and are fine with a bottled coffee from a fridge.
Let’s take the example of games. „Four in a row“, a simple game, „Chess“, a complex game. Is the one better than the other? Complexity adds immensely to the richness of a game, though it is also a reason why many never even start to play.
If I am hiking in the mountains a Swiss Army Knife is a great tool. Compared to carrying a bunch of tools on a hike, a simple solution. I certainly don’t prefer a Swiss Army Knife at home in my kitchen.
It’s hard to tell how much complexity is enough. It’s about the context, and not just about minimalism.
Though it’s not only about context. The users knowledge, understanding and skills matter as well. There are tools with simple and minimal design, but actually to use them isn’t simple at all. Take the simplicity of a surfboard. Anyone who tried to use one the first time will tell you, this tool is quite complex to use. Visual simplicity is not equal to the simplicity of usage.
In the end whether something is simple or not is defined in the mind of the user. It’s not about the number of features, it’s about whether a person using a device has a good idea of how things work. We should always have beginners in mind when designing a user experience, therefore having less features is often better. That said we also should ask: What might the user already be familiar with? Sometimes adding things paradoxically could increase the perceived simplicity. Certain elements might help users to become more familiar with a product, cause they know a similar concept in another context. The UX concept of folders, windows and a desktop in current operating systems is an obvious example.
Don Norman calls this a conceptual model:
„A conceptual model is the underlying belief structure held by a person about how something works.“
Simplicity is not about minimalism.
We tame complexity not just by decreasing features. The main task is understanding. Things we understand are no longer complicated, no longer confusing. In the best case we design something that is based on a simple conceptual model. A model that makes sure that initial learning as well as repeated usage are great.
Don Norman again:
„Simplicity is a mental state, highly coupled with understanding. Something is perceived as simple when its actions, options, and appearance match the person’s conceptual model.“
Another way to describe an understandable UX design is to call it normal. Often things feel normal, when we are in full control about something. When we don’t have to think about how to use it and things happen as expected.
In classic product design normal means adopting a familiar form and aesthetic. Normal refers to things as they’ve come to be. It’s about not going against the inevitable flow of things as they come to be.
In the book “Super Normal — Sensations of the Ordinary” the designers Jasper Morrison & Naoto Fukasawa point out that some products are “better in being normal” than others. The Super Normal Object is defined by Jasper Morrison as result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things. These objects become super normal through use rather than through design.
The objects are less concerned with visual beauty, and more about homely, but memorable elements of everyday life. Nothing flash or eyecatching, yet somehow appealing.
What makes a normal UX to a super normal UX?
How could we achieve Super Normal Design in the development of digital user experiences? Could we set „analog objects“ equal to a digital product or feature?
An application with a super normal UX is an app that does it’s job without messing up your familiar workflow. An app that feels good to use and that gives you full control over your experience, but that’s more than normal. An app where the makers realised what’s good in „normal“, and then improved it by making the essence of the experience better.
A product with a super normal UX is less focused on it’s visual aspects. It’s more about creating an object in balance with its role and function in the workflow of an user. The beauty of such an experience lies in the relationship between objects and people. We appreciate it for it’s usefulness in relation to the task.
An example: Mailbox App
Let’s take an example of an user experience we are all very familiar with it: Email applications. If you would have to design a new email application, you quickly would have a whole set of „normal“ concepts in mind. You would think about an inbox, an archive folder and a simple three column layout. You would think about user actions like answering, deleting or forwarding an email. Simple UX elements you and so many others are familiar with in the context of managing emails.
Email applications are nearly as old as the internet. Though a few years ago a little team launched a new application that grew amazingly fast. [note]It was just a few months later acquired by Dropbox. Even though later the development of the app was stopped by Dropbox, many of the innovative user flows were copied by other email clients.[/note] Super normal UX design might have been a huge factor to its success.
On the first sight Mailbox looked very similar to any other email application. On the iPhone, iPad, as well as on the Mac app, it had familiar basic email UX structures and features. It felt normal. If you have ever used any email application you would be ready to go.
So, what made it super normal?
The makers of Mailbox had an insight about the workflow around emails. A lot of people are using email inboxes as a kind of to-do list, cause that’s where so many of your tasks live anyway. Though email applications were not build for managing tasks. Users often leave emails with open tasks in their inboxes. These then get messy, harder and harder to manage and the calm feeling of an inbox zero becomes an impossible challenge.
The insight of the Mailbox team was to transform your mail application in some kind of to do list. By adding smart features that enabled users to handle emails in a similar way as you would handle tasks on a to do list. People could process every email the moment they open it. Emails with open tasks had not to stay in the inbox, because of smart features like a “snooze” option. Inbox zero suddenly was in possible reach. Users felt in more control about their emails and had a much better experience.
All this happened though without breaking the “normal”. The app doesn’t force you to anything. You don’t have to use these smart features. You could use Mailbox the same way as any other email application and it would feel totally normal. Mailbox improved the relationship between user and product, without disrupting your familiar UX. The essence of an email client is managing your communication. This includes being in control over your tasks, not just about sending and receiving messages. Mailbox made the UX super normal.
Why be normal?
Why is it successful to have a „normal“ in your UX? From a user perspective normal means comfort, means control. In the case of an email application, where handling emails is a crucial task in our daily lives, people are very averse to change, even if the app is superior. It would be too much effort and risk to change. Designing for „normal“ reduces complexity, especially cognitive complexity for the user. It reduces switching costs and makes onboarding for first time users very easy.
How to become super?
How to build something that feels on the one side normal, and on the other superior and special?
- Avoid the pressure to be eye-catching
First of all avoid the pressure of trying to create something new or eye-catching. Ask yourself which archetypes of UX for the particular use-case exist already ? Analyse and understand the contemporary everyday world around the use-case of the product. Take yourself a little bit less seriously and let designs overlap that come naturally. But don’t get me wrong: Normal doesn’t need to be visually „boring“ and doesn’t mean „not caring“ about your user interface.
- Design for timelessness
Designing a normal UX should be visually appealing, on the other hand it’s not about being fashionable at all. It’s about trying to build something that can last.
“The more classic you can make something, the longer it will last.”
— Paul Arden
If you build a classic, familiar and distraction free user experience, users will feel more likely in control. The product will feel calm, understandable and also timeless. „Normal“ is the result of a long tradition of evolutionary advancement in the shape of everyday things.
I agree, it’s hard to define what “classic” means in an industry that is just about 25 years old and that is radically changing every few years. However there is enough stuff outside of our screens that is a good role model. Obvious influences could come from typography, product, editorial and graphic design.
- Design for understanding
It’s not about less features and minimalism. It’s all about operational simplicity created via a thoughtful reduction of features. Simplicity from the users point of view. User centred design development is as important then metrics driven design. Show your work as early as possible to users (pre launch), build prototypes in all stages of your design process. And of course, launching something doesn’t mean the design process is finished. Data will tell you what users really understand. Analyse and iterate.
- Design for the relationship
Super Normal is not just about familiar functionality, it’s about how things work in relation to our daily life and workflow. It’s about understanding the purpose of the tool, understanding the workflow of a user from the beginning to end. This includes thinking about steps where the digital product is typically not involved. If you are able to find the real essence of a tool, and if you are able to refine that „normal“ core existence bit by bit, than the experience becomes „super normal“. The emotional relationship to a product with such “useful beauty”, craftsmanship, can be stronger than the relationship to something that is „fashionable“.
We all want to reduce the complexity from our lives. Designing for pure minimalism is often not the solution. Our life is complex and our tools have to match this life. Most of the time when people say that they want a simple product, what they actually mean is that they want a product that is easy to use. It’s not about minimalism, it’s about understanding.
Normal is a special kind of simplicity, a operational simplicity from a user centred point of view. If we want to build a product that is super normal, we have to take a risk. The risk to be considered as “just normal”. A risk many don’t want to take, if the users expectations are to get something new and special.
I think we should take this risk more often. Build something that feels familiar and make it better. Normal, but super. Make it easier to use by improving the relationship between the user, the service and its context. Build something that lasts and thus create a new normal.
The Design of Everyday Things — Don Norman
Living with Complexity — Don Norman
Less and More: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams
Super Normal: Sensation of the Ordinary — Jasper Morrison, Naoto Fukasawa
This was first published on digitalwaveriding.com