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On Design Simplicity

By Joanna Ngai

Designers often talk about how great design requires simplicity. We paint complexity of our technology in a negative light, as a state which leads to confused and befuddled customers. While in the past, simplicity has been heralded as the hallmark of successful companies, and akin to products that “just work”, what does it mean to design for simplicity in the context of user experience today?

First off, the term itself is ambiguous. Ask any two designers and you might get a different definition of the term “simplicity”. What makes a product “simple”? And how do we achieve simplicity without sacrificing clarity?

Credit: Bud Helisson via Unsplash

Focus on the Essential

Simplicity of design aesthetics means using images, words, graphics or other visual elements in a way that minimizes clutter to allow a user to focus on what’s most important.

This could mean having just enough information as to not diminish from the task at hand. For interface design, this could look like pairing down bulky UI to the essential.

And how do you define what is essential? This requires the designer to have a deep understanding of what is necessary and important from the user’s perspective and use visual elements to support concentration and focus.

Another good reason to design for interfaces which look better is the Aesthetic-usability effect. It describes a phenomenon in which people perceive more-aesthetic designs as easier to use than less-aesthetic design. By putting resources into great visual design, you can easily make your product appear more usable, organized and credible.

Be Easy to Understand

By hiding more advanced capabilities/options, you create a environment that is less daunting for a user to understand.

One known technique is the idea of progressive disclosure, where information and actions are sequenced across several screens, in order to make the interface easier to use and less error-prone.

The system should use words, phrases and concepts that are familiar to the user, rather than technical or system oriented terms. So the information that the user encounters is natural and straightforward.

Another way to enhance comprehension is to follow existing conventions and design for consistent experiences. Realize that users encounter a variety of existing tools and probably come to your product with preconceived notions of how things should work. While designing for predictable patterns and controls may not sound exciting, they offer clarity and best practices for common actions.

Think of some tasks that you need to accomplish — would you prefer to use a new tool for each task or a familiar tool? Learning a new tool requires time, energy and concentration. By keeping things easy to comprehend, you reduce the barrier for users to quickly get to the benefits of your product.

Yet another method improving comprehension is chunking information, which is related to how people process content. By breaking apart complex and long winded task flows into smaller chunks, you lower the cognitive load of processing new content and guide the user toward information in an organized manner.

Conclusion

It’s easy to get tempted into a common pitfall where you take away from might have been necessary UI in an attempt to add simplicity. Don’t sacrifice clarity for some preconceived notion that simplicity means a clean, minimalist interface. When in doubt, aim for clarity.

The goal is to make products and tools that are simple to understand (by paring down the non-essential but keeping what is necessary) and thus produce experiences that are efficient to use. As a designer, keep your focus on solving the user’s problems.

Creating simplicity isn’t an easy process, it requires thoughtful designers tackling complex problems.

Thanks for reading!