Removing obstacles to improve design

Before my first trip to India I was naive to think living and working in central London would prepare me for life in a densely populated city such as Delhi.

I was wrong. It turns out there’s a lot of traffic in Delhi. Sometimes the traffic is so wonderfully mad it makes you question what you’re seeing. Just when you’ve acclimatised to the sight of entire families balancing on the back of a bike someone zooms past with a live goat strapped to their moped.

Standard rules of the road go out the window in traffic this dense. The familiarity of motorists filing cleanly into uniform lanes is replaced by a dance floor of vehicles, weaving between one another and beeping their horns to signal the next move.

This combination of traffic and noise creates a lot of information to process. Even as a highly strung Londoner it would have been easy to find it overwhelming. But I couldn’t help notice everyone around me in India seemed to take this hectic pace in their stride.

One time as I sat in the back of a car in Delhi, a motorbike collided with our door as it filtered past. I’ve seen London commuters drop the c-bomb before breakfast just for poor escalator etiquette, so as I sat awkwardly in the back waiting for the driver to explode, he just calmly shook his head and carried on.

Then I started talking to the driver about his statue of Ganesh and this started to make more sense. He told me that amongst other things Ganesh symbolises removing obstacles or difficulties from your path, just as an elephant can move heavy objects in its way

So by having Ganesh on his dashboard, he was being guided to his destination clearly and safely, as all unnecessary obstructions and noise were filtered out.


Removing barriers is essential to successful design

Why? Because the design of products and systems should revolve around the goals of its users.

That goal might be for a user to find the time of a train, watch a movie, share a photo with a friend, or buy something they need, etc.

Let’s imagine we’re talking about an app. If the user is able to complete their goal using this app, then the app is useful to them. If they cannot, the app is not useful to them. So the success of a product can revolve around its user’s ability to complete their goals.

This places a huge value on making the path to that goal as clear and frictionless as possible. Anything that creates an additional step to the user completing their goal should be seen as a barrier.

Usability is key to measuring success

If we acknowledge that good design should be based on how easy it is for a user to complete their goals, usability gives us a way to assess this.

The phrases ‘usability’ and ‘user experience’ get thrown around quite a lot in the design world, often incorrectly. So to add clarity for anyone who is unsure, user experience describes the combination of a users interaction with something before they use it, during their interaction with it, and after they have used it.

Usability refers to the middle part of user experience, which is a person’s interaction with a product or system.

ISO 9241 definition

This definition can look a bit confusing but essentially it says a user should be able to complete a goal within defined conditions using the following measurements for success:

  • Effectiveness: Could they complete the goal or not?
  • Efficiency: How much energy was required to complete the goal?
  • Satisfaction: Was it a positive or negative experience?

How does decluttering benefit usability?

In the definition of decluttering there are two interesting words to note.

Cambridge University Press

If we declutter something we make it more pleasant and more useful.

The pleasant side effect of decluttering contributes to the element of satisfaction someone feels, and by making something more useful you’re making it more effective and efficient.

The other important element to bear in mind here is that you only benefit by removing that which “you do not need”. In the context of digital design, taking away elements that are required by the user (which can be identified by reviewing your users’ needs) could be detrimental to usability.

So what practical steps can be taken to declutter? I’ve broken down some examples into three categories.

Simplify. Reduce. Remove.


1. Declutter by simplifying

In the book “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug he compares web pages to the noise at a cocktail party…

“some webpages are like being at a cocktail party; no one source of noise is loud enough to be distracting by itself, but there are a lot of tiny bits of visual noise the wear us down.”

His idea is that every user interface (UI) element requires some level of processing by the user. The more UI elements there are, the more we have to process, which means it takes more effort and energy to use.

Example - Simplifying User Interface

If unnecessary interface elements create additional noise then stripping back the UI to leave only the essential elements allows the user to focus more clearly on what’s important. This means they’re more likely to complete their goal if the journey to success is free from clutter.

The image below is an example of decluttering I implemented at PlayStation by simplifying some design guidelines. In the first example we used grey blocks to outline various elements such as articles and tabs. Each of these block elements requires some kind of cognitive processing. When you remove the grey blocks the content is still perfectly readable. Now the user can simply read the text without having to process any unnecessary details.


2. Declutter by reducing

Our attention spans are limited. Think of an attention span as a finite quantity of energy that a person has to give. In the context of digital design that limited amount of energy is stretched across a range of products and services that a person engages with, such as operating different apps. When they come to use your product, it’s because they have a goal in mind. You have to allow that user to achieve their goal before they expend the limited amount of energy they have to offer..

This idea can be illustrated using the Effort vs. Reward model below.

Scenario A

Locating specific information
Imagine you’re talking with a friend and you can’t remember the name of an old TV programme, so you decide to look it up. Looking through the search results on your phone, you tap on the first link. The website loads but you’re not sure where to look. The content is obscured by a popup and it’s loading very slowly. As it loads the content is confusing and you can’t find what you’re looking for.

Effort: High
Reward: Low
Outcome: Failure. You’re quite likely to give up the search because it’s proving too difficult, and you don’t care enough to carry on.

Scenario B

Booking tickets to a concert
You’re excited about the chance to see your favourite band. Unfortunately the ticket booking system is almost impossible to use because the website has crashed and is operating very slowly.

Effort: High
Reward: High
Outcome: Success. Although it’s possible you will give up, you’re likely to continue with the difficult task if the motivation is strong enough.

By this logic, if you want a user to complete a specific action, it’s important to keep the effort required to an absolute minimum. Especially for tasks where the reward is relatively low, as this is when the user is even more likely to give up.

If the user is not able to complete their goal this leaves a negative impression of that system, which could cause that person to stop using it.


Example - Reducing the effort required

Imagine you’re Amazon back in 2014. As a global logistics company dedicated to finding ways of asking humans to give you their money, you realise that people use consumable household items like soap or tissues every day. Just imagine if all those flesh bags replaced their household goods via your checkout instead of a rival retailer.

The problem is, people generally don’t get much reward from buying essential day-to-day consumables. The other problem is, the process to buy these from Amazon back in 2014 might look something like this:

  1. Locate and log-in to a computer or phone.
  2. Find the product on Amazon.
  3. Add it to a basket.
  4. Register or log in to an account (possibly having to endure additional steps to reset their password if they’re having trouble remembering).
  5. Possibly enter some shipping details.
  6. Choose payment details.

The thought alone is off-putting. What’s more likely is you’ll throw some more soap into your shopping cart next time you’re buying groceries at the supermarket.

By reducing the number of steps to purchase, you reduce the number of barriers for the customer to complete their goal. Fewer barriers means less effort is required, which according to the model above means they’re less likely to give up.

Amazon did this when they developed the Dash button.

They decluttered the purchase flow by reducing the process from six lengthy steps down to one touch of a button. A clever solution to ordering something we have low motivation towards buying. Tapping one button involves such little effort, making it so efficient (and satisfying), it’s almost impossible to fail the task.


3. Declutter by removing

Sometimes to optimise an experience it pays to re-think the current process and remove steps altogether.

Products like Google Home and Amazon Alexa change the process for many tasks we’re used to completing by removing the need to interact with a screen.

Completing tasks using just your voice is an example where almost all common barriers, including the need to take a phone out of your pocket, have been removed entirely. It also makes you feel like you’re living in the future, which is always fun.

Using voice command to order take-away or dim the lights may score highly in efficiency and satisfaction when it works, but as with all emerging consumer tech, this video shows why it’s not always effective

Once these new simplified processes are ironed out and proven to work, it can open up even more new and efficient ways of doing things.

The ‘too long, didn’t read’ conclusion…

  • Successful design of a product should revolve around its user’s goals and their ability to complete them easily. Decluttering helps us to identify and remove any barriers that obstruct the path to completing those goals.
  • Unnecessary details create more information to process that can be exhausting. Removing excess noise can prevent a user from abandoning their task.
  • People are more likely to complete a task if it’s easy or rewarding.
  • The digital landscape is crowded, which means there’s more competition than ever before, so if you don’t make it as simple as possible for a user to complete a task they’re not only likely to give up but they may also go elsewhere.
  • Simplify, reduce, or remove anything you do not need.