Simplicity: Doing It Right

The act of being simple yet useful is one of the hardest things to accomplish. Particularly in the digital environment, where a prerequisite of complexity must exist for a product to actually work – delivering a simple end product to the user can be an almost impossible feat.

Many approach a minimal digital strategy by thinking that items simply need to be removed. This could not be more wrong. True, the removal of the unnecessary is critical, but the addition of a meaningful and usable pathway for the user must be paved. In support of this notion, John Maeda, from the The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life stated that; ‘Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.’ 

With respect to usability, Simplicity is not the magic solution, but it can make the experience exponentially easier to navigate. To ensure you are designing and strategizing the right path, approach usability as the interaction between the user and the system to help understand how the user will move about the environment and with what level of ease. The main driver for many to engage in simplicity is for the benefits it can bring to a site’s usability factor.

Simple, Not Stupid

Designing a site for simplicity can mean many things but foremost it shouldn’t mean that you are ‘dumbing it down’. Understanding that simplification is taking complex information and translating it into an easier formula is quite complicated. In this process, every aspect of the site and possible pathways must be explored to determine what the best strategy of implementation is.  A user who successfully engages with a simplistic approach does not feel like they are being talked down to, rather, that they have engaged with a streamlined, intuitive experience.

Visual vs. Contextual Simplicity

Approaching simplicity, for many, either means a simple structure or layout that is then laden with heavy content that has not been optimized or an overly complex design with little content that doesn’t adequately lead the user to their needs.

The key here is balance – a site’s layout must align with the content and brand it represents. The structure and navigation should support the information it will contain – an informational site’s structure will be nowhere near the same as the structure of an ecommerce interface – however, both can benefit from a layout that is simple, yet can manage all the necessary information.

Across the board, if the site is highly content heavy, consider replacing some of the content with imagery or more direct calls to action delivering the user to the content without having to read a cumbersome amount of material.

Purpose Driven Simplicity

In truth, making the decision to simplify a website – whether content or image based, is making a commitment to being a purpose driven interface. If the core of user experience is to get the user to accomplish their needs as quickly and enjoyably as possible, then simplicity is the key.

Taking a top down approach – beginning with the navigational structure and site architecture – first navigation pages then inner pages, taking a full and complete look at all the content and paring it down is essential. Determine what elements are essential and the most used to get your user from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’. This information can be gathered by analytics, user testing or even taking an internal journey for the site owner. Immediately, the elements that can be removed and/or are not used will stick out like sore thumbs and the process begins.

Its important to not oversimplify or remove elements that are used regularly. Simplification can also be done in a phased approach and tested incrementally to ensure the right path for the target user.

Vanessa Petersen

As Executive Director of Brand Strategy based in ArtVersion’s Portland office, Vanessa manages both national and West Coast accounts. She brings with her a passion for strategy with extensive experience in creative marketing, brand growth and development. She is a true advocate of storytelling and brand building from the inside out, and her keen knowledge of the marketplace, trend patterns and usability lead her to identify opportunities that can inspire powerful design strategies.

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