Demystifying UX Design: Common False Beliefs and Their Remedies: Part 3

By Frank Guo

Published: June 3, 2013

“Another widely held belief among UX designers: that making a user interface look simple is always good practice.”

So far in this series, I’ve covered several UX design issues that many people erroneously believe to be problematic: long pages and large number of clicks in Part 1; high information density in Part 2. Now, in Part 3 of “Demystifying UX Design,” I’ll discuss another widely held belief among UX designers: that making a user interface look simple is always good practice.

Simplicity Is Not Simple

When it comes to UX design, there is little doubt that simplicity is good. Simplistic design is one of Jakob Nielsen’s widely accepted Web-design heuristics. And the success of Apple user interfaces—which are remarkably simplistic, elegant, and easy to use—has further strengthened the belief that simplicity should always be our goal. Of course, there is much truth in this belief—especially for smartphone user interfaces, where limited screen real estate requires that a user interface be clean.

“Think about what we want to achieve through simplicity in the first place: reducing users’ mental effort, supporting users’ tasks, creating user engagement, and enhancing discoverability.”

However, I’ve found that many UX designers adhere to this idea regardless of context, so take a minimalistic approach even when additional screen elements and content would result in a better user experience.

Simplicity is not that simple.

Let’s take a step back and think about what we want to achieve through simplicity in the first place: reducing users’ mental effort, supporting users’ tasks, creating user engagement, and enhancing discoverability. In actuality, given these goals, a complex user interface comprising many elements, if designed well, can achieve our goals as well as, if not better than a simplistic design.

A Busy-Looking Site That Makes Users’ Lives Easier

A very popular Web portal in China is Sohu.com, which is equivalent to Yahoo.com there. As you can see in Figure 1, this site looks very busy. It has high information density, long pages; and lots of ads, graphics, links, and text.

Figure 1—Sohu.com looks busy, but is engaging and easy to use

Sohu.com looks busy, but is engaging and easy to use

But take a close look, and you’ll see that the site manages its complexity by

  • using color to distinguish different types of information
  • grouping content according to categories
  • maintaining consistency in page layout and the use of color throughout the site—for example, there’s always a picture in the upper-left corner of each content container.

When I read information on Sohu.com—I know Chinese well—it’s an effortless experience. I can always find my way around the site and have no difficulty discovering its content. The content is newsworthy and entertaining, and I don’t run out of interesting content even after hours of reading on the site. In my view, that’s the true definition of simplicity.

To summarize, there is face-value simplicity, which is characterized by a clean look and feel, and there is true simplicity, which is characterized by ease of use, ease of comprehension, good discoverability, and minimal mental effort. Does face-value simplicity lead to true simplicity? Sometimes, as in the case of a smartphone user interface, but not always.

True simplicity is about making users’ lives easier, not about making a user interface look simple.

Make Your Designs Relevant, Not Just Simple: Best Practices for Simplistic Design

“We should create new design patterns only when existing solutions do not meet our design needs.”

Here are some best practices for achieving true simplicity. In some cases, the result may be that a user interface looks a bit busier because of the addition of more controls and content. But by providing convenience and engagement, those elements can ensure ease of use.

  • Align your designs to and leverage user expectations. To achieve this:
    • Consistently apply commonly accepted design patterns. For example, on a Web site, you should place global navigation at the top of a page, local navigation on the left side of a page, and contextual modules on the right whenever possible. User interfaces for iPhone and Android mobile devices have different design conventions that designers should follow. For example, to navigate back, users expect a Back button in iPhone apps, but a physical Return button on Android phones. One thing to keep in mind is that we should create new design patterns only when existing solutions do not meet our design needs—as when designing touch interactions for mobile devices or tablets rather than mouse input for Web applications
    • Maintain cross-page consistency. Once users get to know a Web site, they’ll have expectations for the way the rest of the site should look and behave. Meeting their expectations by adhering to the same design standards across an entire site is key to ensuring ease of use.
  • First, get users to act, then provide clear feedback. Having clear calls-to-action can greatly reduce the mental effort that is necessary for users to comprehend a page’s content. When you expect that users may need to take further action or refine their actions, the most effective approach is to have them perform an action first, then provide feedback regarding whatever further action is necessary. Here’s an example: Once a user creates a password, you can provide feedback that the password must be longer. This makes the interaction much easier for users than requiring them to learn the full set of rules—for example, that a password must be at least 8 characters in length and contain at least one letter, one digit, and one symbol.
  • Provide lots of engaging content. Motivated users tend to find a user interface easier to use than unmotivated users, simply because they are willing to put in more effort to learn their way around a site and are more tolerant of usability issues. Facebook is a great example. It’s not the easiest-to-use Web site. There’s so much going on, the site navigation is confusing, and the timeline is hard to use. However, Facebook users rarely complain about the site’s usability because they’re fully absorbed in the rich social experience that they find there.
  • Provide navigation and signposts everywhere. On a large Web site, users often get lost and cannot find their way back. Dead-ends result in high abandonment rates. I’ve seen this happen quite often with designs for very specific workflows such as completing a funds transfer or updating a user’s profile, when there is no global navigation.
  • Always let users know what to do next. After completing a task, having to figure out what’s next is a pain. This is the point at which many users leave a Web site. Two ways to improve ease of use and keep users on a site:
    • Suggest a next step. For example, provide a link back to the home page.
    • Recommend additional content. For example, tell users that they might be interested in a particular item.
  • Use good information-presentation techniques. When designing high-information-density user interfaces, you can apply a number of the design techniques that I discussed in my previous column in this series. They’ll enable you to remove clutter from a busy-looking user interface without taking out content and screen elements that enhance the user experience. These techniques include grouping similar content, aligning text and pictures, and consistently using different colors to indicate different types of content.

True Simplicity: More Than Meets the Eye

“A visually simplistic user interface may make users’ lives difficult, while a visually busy user interface may make users’ lives easy. It depends on whether a user interface is well designed.”

As you can see, true simplicity is about more than meets the eye. A visually simplistic user interface may make users’ lives difficult, while a visually busy user interface may make users’ lives easy. It depends on whether a user interface is well designed. If we are designing for users rather than to satisfy our own sense of aesthetics, we want to achieve ease of use.

So, what about aesthetics? Don’t many designers regard Apple user interfaces as being the gold standard for visual appeal? While it’s true that the Apple design language seamlessly integrates a simple look and feel and emotional appeal, their design approach is not the only way to get your target users excited about your application’s user interface.

For example, the eBay user interface also generates a great deal of excitement among its target users. Hardcore users of Reddit.com, a horrendously busy-looking site, think the site is extremely engaging. Many users think that the user interface of the recently released Samsung Galaxy SIII is flashier, sexier, and therefore, more exciting than the more austere user interfaces of Apple products. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to simplicity, there is no truer statement.

The take-away message: start with what users want, then design your product’s user interface based on that. Leverage easy-to-understand design patterns and seed your user interface with plentiful, good content. You’ll create a user interface that’s straightforward, functional, and engaging. Visual simplicity should never be the goal. As UX designers, making users’ lives easier should always be our goal.

Reference

Nielsen, Jakob. Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 1999.

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