Three strategies for simplicity

As we continue to move through an age of mobile first and responsive design, we’ve learnt that digital products that are easy to use win favour with consumers. Twitter and Instagram appeal to a popular audience because they do one thing really well — they’re simple but powerful.

But simplicity isn’t always easy to achieve… A product that’s effortless to use can actually be very technical and complicated behind the scenes, and there’s always the danger of over simplifying too — a unicycle looks like a simpler version of a bike but it’s actually a lot more difficult to use.

So how do you achieve the right level of simplicity? The Code UX team have been trying out Giles Colborne’s methods for simplifying user interfaces, and we’ve put together our top tips.

1. Remove unnecessary features

The most obvious way to simplify is to get rid of unnecessary features until your interface is stripped back to only the essentials. It’s a common misconception that a product with more features has more capabilities, and is therefore more useful. But the more features we add, the further we blur the clarity of the product. The best products meet the basic needs of the user before adding extra delight. Buying a camera with 30+ functions may sound great, but if you can’t figure out how to take a basic photo then it becomes frustrating and useless…

Removing clutter allows designers to focus on solving a few important problems really well, whilst also letting users focus on meeting their goals without distraction. And solving user frustrations by adapting a current feature often adds more value than bringing in an entirely new feature.

TIP: Removing features can be a challenge. A good way to tackle this is by doing a prioritisation exercise. Start by writing down users’ goals on Post-its and lay them out in order of priority, focusing on what is most valuable for the users everyday experience of the product. Then start gradually adding the features that completely meet users high priority goals, ending with the low priority goals. This exercise will help the team to focus on what is core, making it easier to remove features at the bottom of the list. (Remember, though, this doesn’t mean getting rid of what is difficult to build!)

2. Organise your interface into groups that make the most sense

Organising an interface is often the quickest way to make things simpler (and usually easier than having to make the tough decisions involved in removing features). A good way to make something that’s complicated more manageable is to break it up into chunks. This involves categorising features/content/lists, etc., into groups that will make the most sense to the user.

Alphabetical product lists used to be a common solution for online retailers, but this often made it difficult for users to find what they’re looking for; for example, ‘woolly jumpers’, ‘vintage jumpers’ and ‘christmas jumpers’ would not necessarily sit next to each other in an alphabetical list. Many online retailers have now moved away from using alphabetised lists in favour of using categories, such as ‘knitwear’, to overcome this. There are also lots of other ways to organise an interface; for example, by size, colour, position or shape.

TIP: What makes the most sense to you may not necessarily be what your audience think. One way to involve users in the organising process is through card sorting. Optimal Workshop is a great online tool for this.

3. Hide distracting details and features that are only for ‘experts’

Usually a product has a few core features for ‘mainstream users’ and some extended features for ‘expert users’; ‘mainstream users’ are mostly interested in getting a job done, whilst ‘experts’ are happy to explore a product to find out what it does. Hiding the features that are intended for experts is a good way to keep things simple. The Topshop app does this well by hiding the additional share features that could distract a mainstream user from completing their purchasing task.

One reason for hiding complexity is to avoid making the user feel overwhelmed or stupid. Labels such as ‘advanced’ tend to undo this. Ideally, use a label that will appeal to your specific audience.

TIP: Choose carefully what you decide to hide — it only works if no one has to search for too long.

For more strategies for simplicity, we recommend you read Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile and Interaction Design by Giles Colborne.