Simple Ain’t Simple

Issue 12

Adventures in UX Design is a newsletter helping you navigate UX roadblocks.

There is no shortage of advice — or quotes — in the world on why simplicity is essential in communication, design, and engineering. No one is advocating for individuals in any line of work to go out and confuse the hell out of people. Well, almost no one. Yet, simplicity isn’t…simple. It isn’t simple to achieve, and it isn’t about simplifying concepts and ideas. This can be a difficult distinction for people to make. See irony for details.

In the 1970s, an acronym attributed to a designer at Lockheed became quite popular. It was known as KISS. This is not to be confused with the era’s ambassadors of pyrotechnic glam rock, KISS.

Keep It Simple, Stupid is a principle that promotes ideas and experiences that can be accessed by anyone. KISS could be a cousin to the concept of Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution is generally the best choice. Simple solutions can encompass deep ideas.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” — Albert Einstein.

There is a natural tension between simplicity and complexity. We want our products to have a level of complexity without being complex. Teams experience this tension all the time when they work with stakeholders who feel pressure to pack products with as many features as possible, and prioritize feature development over learning and the user experience.

“While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” — The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life, by John Maeda.

In this issue, we look at three tactics that designers and information architects can use to achieve simplicity in their work.

1. Rules For Simplicity

People don’t agree on what simple is, or even means. What is simple and apparent to you may confuse the heck out of me. That’s why we test products. Even so, my goals as a user may be more detailed and demanding than yours, and designers should understand the range of needs between a mainstream audience, and the experts who will ask for more.

Experts: Focus on details, perfection, precise control, and invest time in learning

Mainstreamers: Focus on goals, completion, ease of use, and examples of use

Designer Giles Colborne has thought a lot about how designers can achieve simplicity without simplifying concepts. The process begins with understanding the user experience and the product objective.

  • How is the product engineered?
  • How does it look? What is the promise of the experience? If it looks simple, but is difficult to use, it will disappoint.
  • How does it feel to use? This is the ultimate test to understanding whether the product is simple to use or not.
  • What are the audience goals, and how and where do they fork from mainstream to experts?

Your audience will want different things out of the product, but even experts begin as mainstreamers at some point along the way.

Given this knowledge, how do you simplify design and experiences?

1. Remove

Are there multiple ways of doing the same thing in the interface? Are there needless steps within a feature that can be removed? Are some features throwing out a lot of errors? Are there elements to the interface that are distracting the user experience?

2. Organize

Identify user patterns and organize material around them. Look for opportunities to give users a visual cue to follow. Frame your terms of reference. Don’t force the user to learn something.

3. Hide

Organize around patterns of use and not frequency. Look for behavior that signals a pattern. Experts will look for additional features, while mainstream audiences will need easy access to what they need.

4. Displace

Shift the complexity somewhere else, where it seems simpler.

Keep your mainstream tasks dominant, because they’ll need ease of use, and don’t be afraid to leave advanced features hidden a bit for the experts who will seek them out and use them.

WATCH: Simplifying Designs with Giles Colborne

2. Simplify Information

Information is everywhere. We are, after all, living in the Information Age. (Meant to be said aloud in a deep, stentorian tone.) Sifting through information and making sense out of it is hard. It requires one to understand the nature of the information, the goals and expectations of the audience, and natural groupings under which it falls and can be accessed.

And yet, that’s the easy part.

Language is personal, and political within organizations. When information is complex, it gets in the way of understanding, explains information architect Abby Covert. Abby reminds us that information is not the same as content. When an architect creates site architectures and controlled vocabularies, they look at the meaning of language and, more importantly, how others will perceive language choices. Abby details a list of dangers that lurk in complexity:

  • Familiarity (being too close to a problem)
  • Looking good vs. being good (fixing the surface of a problem)
  • Not admitting ignorance when faced with it
  • Including more detail than is necessary
  • Believing more colorful/flowery language is better
  • Belief that a better, shinier solution will fix all the problems
  • Defining the how before understanding the what (solving problems you don’t understand)

How do we tackle complex information challenges? Abby shares five lessons for how to navigate these thorny language issues.

1. Talk about the language used in the organization

People use different words to describe the same things, and these variations inevitably bubble up across a website. It’s the job of the architect to sift through inconsistencies in language and create a shared asset that everyone can use. What variations in language do teams see across products, marketing materials?

2. Show an alternative way of organizing something

As painful as language exercises can be for organizations, the purpose of them is to reach a shared goal. Abby recommends creating alternative ways of organizing information. Information shouldn’t reflect the organizational chart of a business.

3. Use pictures to visualize and communicate the problems you are trying to solve

Pictures should acknowledge the complexity of a problem, and not reduce that problem to a solution or representation that is too simple.

4. Facilitate information architecture decisions collaboratively

Creating a shared vocabulary should be a collaborative exercise that draws teams out of their silos.

5. Map out your current information architecture

Map your current IA and check to see if it is working for you. No one will tell you if it’s working, but if it isn’t, you’ll hear how customers can’t accomplish something, or don’t understand the hierarchy of information on a page.

Abby suggests setting aside your opinions and working collaboratively across teams to understand the complexity of an information problem.

“Everyone has that perceptive lens. Everybody’s creating their own information. That means that when you walk into a meeting and you’ve got whatever it is you’re there to do or show or talk about, there’s other people in that room that have different mental models than you, and they all have their own opinions, and they all have their own way of seeing the world,” says Abby.

Finding common ground requires architects to build connections between people and language, to understand the differences between groups before bringing them together with a shared understanding of the language they use.

WATCH: How to Make Sense of Any Mess with Abby Covert

3. Clean Up Complexity

Enterprise applications often fall victim to an emphasis on function over form. They are packed with features and functionality that users want. But they don’t take into account the user experience. It’s only when a competitor comes along with a slick new product and a clean interface that they are forced to make changes. Similarly, mobile applications force businesses to prioritize features and functionality, because they are limited by space.

Systems that are cluttered with features pay a cost in productivity, customer service calls, poor retention rates, and loss of sales to competitors. We call it the clutter tax.

In a UIE Podcast, we spoke with Amanda Linden, head of design at Asana, and designer Hagan Rivers about the challenges enterprise companies face when they are forced to take a step back and simplify. We discuss Asana’s redesign, as well as general changes that enterprise systems can make to improve the experience, such as increasing the workspace and simplifying the visual elements.

“I think the one thing that really is important in enterprise application design is to understand that the users came here to interact with the information and the data in the application. All the controls, the navigation, all those other pieces that the buttons they have to push, the toolbars, those all things they have to interact with, but they’re there to see the data,” explains Hagan Rivers.

Both Hagan and Amanda address switching costs, when businesses roll out changes at once and overwhelm (and lose) their customers. Customers will leave if they feel they need to learn a new experience all over again. Embraceable change is an approach whereby small changes to a design and interface are made and rolled out over time to allow customers to adapt and respond.

Cleaning out the clutter and simplifying the interface allows customers to re-engage and experience the full product and all it offers. But how those changes are made and communicated is equally important to retaining existing users and building new ones.

LISTEN: Redesigning an Enterprise App to Battle the Clutter Taxwith Hagan Rivers

LISTEN: Simplifying Complex Applications with Hagan Rivers

If you insist on getting complex, get Rube about it.

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