A framework for product design simplicity

How to focus on what matters

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🗓 1st February, 2021

Many times throughout our design careers, we encounter wonderful displays of design simplicity. Products and services we just couldn’t imagine any other way — adding or removing anything would cause the whole to collapse, dysfunction or simply become something totally different to what it is.

The benefits of simplicity are plentiful and obvious when encountered:

  • It creates familiarity and boosts confidence.
  • It creates clarity, reducing ambiguity and human error.
  • It reduces the amount of time and effort necessary for users to get needs met.
  • It increases user productivity and success.

Yet with all of these benefits and more, simplicity is often misunderstood, misused or undervalued.

Some confuse simple with ‘simplistic’, which is treating complex problems as if they were much simpler than they really are.

Other times, stellar displays of design simplicity are presented only to be perceived by others as underwhelming, boring, missing something or bad taste.

Simplicity is a philosophy routed in principals that offer objective value. It has nothing to do with underestimating complexity, nor does it have anything to do with being boring or having bad taste.

A yardstick for simplicity

Simplicity may mean a number of things depending on the context in which a conversation unfolds. It may mean less features and functions, less steps in a user journey, less interface ornamentation, clutter or content. It could also mean an execution strategy which will require less effort.

Although contrasting, all of these views hold true. The question is, how can designers execute products which are simple in a holistic way, covering the spectrum of meanings attached to the word?

There’s no quick answer, but here’s a yardstick that makes a great start:

  • Simple consists only of what’s necessary for users and the business to meet their needs.
  • Simple is designed to feel familiar and intuitive to users.
  • Simple offers users the shortest and easiest route to meet their needs.

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Simple consists only of what’s necessary for users and the business to meet their needs

It’s worth remembering that what doesn’t add value will add clutter and confusion instead, both of which corrode simplicity. Understanding user and business needs and prioritising them is a great first step in taming the complexity beast early on.

One way to achieve this is to interview stakeholders and conduct user research, then organise findings into two lists — one representing user needs and the other business needs. On each list, findings may be organised into three categories titled: Must have’s, should have’s and nice to have’s.

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With these lists at hand, the most critical items will quickly raise to the top and take priority — Must have’s.

Other items which provide value but which are perhaps not critical or urgent will also be put into perspective — Should have’s.

Lastly, the exercise may serve as an eye opener as items of lower or no value will find their place at the bottom of the list — Nice to have’s.

Skipping out on nice to have’s generally brings some benefits along such as:

  • Letting the important dominate and guide users to success.
  • Avoiding users engaging with anything less important that offers less value to them.
  • Reduced project scope, depth and effort to build.
  • Reduced time to ship.

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Simple is designed to feel familiar and intuitive to users

It’s easy to believe that simple layouts, less clicks, and less colours will result in simplicity. However, coming back to the user…

Simple is whatever helps the user meet their needs easily and confidently. Sometimes adding a thing or two to a screen may provide additional clarity rather than less.

Two benchmarks for simplicity are 1. solutions which feel familiar and 2. solutions which are intuitive and easy to learn.

Solutions which feel familiar

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Such solutions may share similarities with well known products and services in order to match users' mental models. Similarities may come in the form of familiar features, journeys, interface patterns, language and anything in between.

It's important to identify when there's an advantage in drawing from other products and when there's an advantage in doing things differently. If there are no advantages in reinventing the wheel, then opting for a known solution can only create familiarity for users and help them extract value from the product faster.

Solutions which are intuitive and easy to learn

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By guiding users thoughtfully through a product, an unfamiliar system may still be simple to learn and use. Products consisting of great user on-boarding, contextual help and helpful feedback loops are prime examples.

Although unfamiliar designs are generally riskier bets given that users must figure them out, the risk factor may be reduced by conducting thorough user testing and refining the design till it's intuitive and learnable.

Simple offers users the shortest and easiest route to meet their needs

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A simple solution is one that requires the least amount of effort necessary from users over the shortest period of time possible. It’s worth mentioning that while reducing clicks may be one step in reducing the time aspect, reducing decisions for users to make generally results in greater simplicity even if that means a few more clicks.

Reducing decisions for users to make generally results in greater simplicity even if that means a few more clicks.

This is because easy tasks may be carried out fairly quickly even if there are many of them; on the other hand, one tough decision may be a total blocker. For this reason, reducing decision making should be prioritised and making tasks quickly achievable should come second. With this being said, as a rule of thumb it’s good practice to keep ‘removing’ until ‘removing’ any further will compromise familiarity, clarity and utility.

As a rule of thumb, it’s good practice to keep ‘removing’ until ‘removing’ any further will compromise familiarity, clarity and utility.

There are a number of techniques to find the easiest and shortest routes for users, let’s look at a couple.

Find ways to make the software work more intelligently in the background

Systems may be designed in ways which reduce the amount of decision making and input required from users, sparing them time and effort to get their needs met.

Software should not be any different from a friendly assistant helping users getting things done, so it’s always worth asking “What could the software do for the user?” Software may:

  • Make intelligent suggestions based on user profiles.
  • Pre-fill information.
  • Remember user preferences.
  • Fetch data and avoid users having to provide it.
  • Make calculations on behalf of the user.
  • Prevent users from making errors.
  • Allow users to continue a process later rather than start over.
  • Remove options which are not viable.
  • Automate tasks.
  • Adjust settings based on user location or time of day.

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Consider using progressive disclosure

By providing the ‘minimum viable experience’ and then unfolding more as the user interacts, complexity may be fragmented into digestible bites which are perceived as simple. Here are some examples:

Progressive disclosure when buying shoes online

After selecting a model of shoes, a user may be given a choice of sizes based on what the manufacturer produces for that model and also what’s available in stock at the time; the user may be asked to choose a colour too.

If the website were to place all options down at a go; shoe model, size and colour, then a user may pick her preferences only for the software to say that the size or colour or both are unavailable.

Progressive disclosure when setting up software

Set up wizards typically expose little bits of information at a time as the user clicks through, digests information and takes action.

Compare that to placing all the information and options in one view; users may be intimidated and instantly overestimate the effort required. They may also start at the wrong place or digest information in an order which was not intended, further increasing confusion.

Progressive disclosure when browsing content

A common example of progressive disclosure may be found in content ‘cards’ which display the least amount of information necessary, then expand into more information after being tapped on.

If this design pattern didn’t exist, users would have to go through tons of content to find the bit that concerns them.

Simple will be around a long time

There’s a tendency for design to cycle through different execution styles over the years. Skeuomorphism, Web 2.0, Minimalism, Material design, Brutalism, you name it. Simplicity can be achieved regardless of the trend of the day because it is a philosophy not a style or trend.

As long as designers remain committed to customer success, simplicity will continue to be valuable regardless of how people, technology or trends change over time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery rightly said:

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

It’s interesting to think that after all these years, this quote still holds true today at every level of designing products. It looks like simplicity will be around for a long time.

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