How to incorporate Simplicity in your designs
There has been a wide spread debate on the exact definitions of Simplicity, Usability and Minimalism for quite some time now. The deduction that they all are more or less the same has also been on the discussion lounge for quite a while.
Although, I must admit this is not true, there are certain grey areas amongst the three concepts which makes us ponder about their exact application. As a designer, I would say that they are distinct and can be applied on the fundamentals of design from different perspectives.
This is a 3 part series, in which I shall merely express my opinions and thoughts about what Simplicity, Minimalism and Usability is, which of course is from my standpoint of view. This may or may not be correlated with yours but at least we will have a healthy discussion. This part is about the aspects of Simplicity, how to incorporate it in our work and some instances where I think simplicity plays an influential role.
How can we define Simplicity? Is it what makes things easier to understand? Or is Simplicity the least possible use of elements? We are in the age of innovation and consumerism where there is a distinct line between what we want and what we need. As a matter of fact, it is one of innovation’s biggest paradoxes: We demand more and more from the stuff in our lives–more features, more function, more power–and yet we also increasingly demand that it should be easy to use.
Simplicity can sometimes have unorthodox perspectives, mainly due to the naivety of the users. This is clearly the case in the software world today. If software companies decide to simplify their programs every year by shipping with 10% fewer features at 10% higher cost due to the expense of simplification, do you think the users will appreciate such a change? For them, to get less and pay more seems to contradict sound economic principles. One of the biggest examples would be the iPod. Apple released the iPod which appeared quite “simple” at first glance and was very expensive. However, due to its simplistic design and functionality, they capitalized and dominated the MP3 market selling more than a million devices in less than a year.
Another astounding example of simplicity resulting in a better world is undoubtedly the influence of Google on the World Wide Web. The technology that powers Google’s search engine is, however, anything but simple. In a fraction of a second, the engine solves an equation of more than 500 million variables to rank 8 billion Web pages by importance and providing relevant results in no more than a second. But, beneath all the clutter and super-fast performance, simplicity is what defines the face of Google. With not more than 20 words on the homepage, it is easily the first thing that comes to our mind when we open a web browser. Its influence has grown to such proportions that the word ‘Googling’ has become a verb in the English dictionary thus epitomizing simplicity as a fuel to drive the future.
Simplicity is a quality that not only evokes passionate loyalty for any design, but also is a key strategic tool for businesses to confront their own intrinsic complexities. However tenacious it may sound, Simplicity is not just about removing the unnecessary and making customers contented with their products but it is also about contemplating simpler, more efficient ways to move the economy forward.
That’s OK, but what exactly is Simplicity?
Wikipedia defines Simplicity as a more qualitative word connected to ‘Simple’. It is a property, condition, or quality which things can be judged to have. Something which is easy to understand or explain, is simple. Simplicity can also be used to imply beauty, purity or clarity. It also makes things easily recognizable and memorable.
A few years after the browser wars broke out (nearly a couple of decades ago) and ended in a dramatic manner, the battle of the search engines arose. At that time, the internet wasn’t evolved as much as we experience it today. However it was a breeding ground for competition, rivalry and the ever increasing thirst to acquire dominance. I have given an example of how the search engines have developed through the decade. As you can see, ten years ago, we had cluttered and “indefinite” standards that defined how to access the web. Today, a simpler yet an elegant alternative dominates the web.
Google has been heralding the notion of simplicity from the day it began. It has been a challenge to provide the most dominant competition in the search market, yet be able to keep a clutter-free web page so that the users are not annoyed by things that are irrelevant to them.
Here is what Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Search Products and User Experience at Google, thinks about the tension between complexity of function and simplicity of design: “Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it in your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open–and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”
Today, the world has evolved into a whole different plateau than what it was a decade ago. With the advent of newer technologies and bigger responsibilities, we cannot afford to lose time. At the moment, I can even say that we all have a short attention span. As people have a limit to visual consumption, we must adhere to certain refinements in visual communication. The audience will appreciate such “simplicity” as they don’t want all that clutter in their lives.
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful”. Let us say you have bought a new DVD Player and you are pretty excited to watch a movie. When you find the right one and sit to watch it, you get a sudden deluge of options on your DVD Remote when all you need to do is press the PLAY button. To be honest, there are over 40 buttons on my remote and it takes me nearly a minute to search and find the PLAY button. So, do we really need all that clutter? Do we always have to live in a world filled with so many features that we forget what is important to us? There are certain steps which will help you make your life simpler. By “life”, I mean work, design and everything else that can be optimized for better usage and accountability.
Let us take the same example of the remote control. Say, we need to design a new remote that will be as simple as possible. What can we do? Here are the basic steps which can help you simplify your designs and your work.
However, this is not the only way to achieve simplicity but at least provides a clear insight into what makes successful systems simple. Let us look into these stages in a bit more detailed perspective.
An easiest way to induce simplicity is to remove functionality. Let us take our previous example of the DVD Remote. Obviously, we won’t use all the buttons while watching a movie or recording it. So, the first step towards optimization would be to remove unnecessary buttons and keep only those which we use frequently. So, you will end up pretty much with only the PLAY button but obviously you need more than just that, right? How about when you need to pause it while you are on the phone or when you need to increase the volume.
So, there has to be a clear distinction about how simpler you can make your system and how complex it must be so that it doesn’t become useless. Thus, the simplest way to achieve Simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. So, always make sure you remove the right things from the right place, and do so carefully! When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized.
Unfortunately, it is not always possible to remove everything and put only those which we use the most. We may need certain additions to the existing design that will help us extend the usability of the product. So, the next step is to ‘HIDE” those features which seem to be of lesser importance than we use often.
Let us go back to our example of the DVD Remote. It is not always that we use only play/pause buttons. We may need to adjust the brightness, saturation and so on. So, instead of directly displaying those buttons, hide them under a special button so that those who need it can use it effectively and those who are irked by it won’t notice it at all.
Another wonderful example where features are carefully hidden would be the Swiss Army knife. We know that the knife has so much functionality but they are hidden in a compact manner such that only those which are needed can be used and the others lay concealed.
Such a concealment is greatly seen in today’s software and web browsers; the navigation bar. The drop down menu which drops when you hover across it is a perfect example of hiding the features. Another example where hiding is quite prominent is the advertisement industry. People are shown only that information which is deemed appropriate by the advertiser based on the user. If the user wants to know more about the product, there are several ways to display the entire information.
Consider the Apple website shown above, and specifically the page for the newly launched iPhone 4. The features are “hidden” in such a way that not only are they easily distinguishable, but also neatly organized. At one end, there are “Basic Features” which gives a clear overview of the product for users who wish to know what they want to know and at the other end, there is ‘Tech Specs’ which gives a detailed information about the technological aspects of the phone which are meant for those who are curious to know more and for for the experts.
Thus, it is not only important to remove unnecessary features, but also very important to hide content in a strategical manner such that it does not spoil the simplicity of the design and yet provide most of the functionality that we desire.
Grouping relevant features makes a system of many appear fewer. Working with fewer objects, concepts, and functions—and fewer corresponding buttons to press—makes life simpler when faced with the alternative of having too many choices. As you may have noticed, even though after thoughtful reduction and hiding, there may be instances wherein you are not able to easily find the exact feature you need before your attention span runs out. Thus, organizing/grouping things and elements is a crucial way to achieve simplicity in design.
Let us look at our DVD remote again. What if all the other features apart from Play and Pause are hidden within the functionality of the remote, but unfortunately are thrown in a single place where it is simply a waste of your time if you plan on searching it. Thus, it is of prime importance that you strategically organize and group the features such that they are easily accessible but does not clutter the primary functionality of the system.
Another down-to-earth example would be numbers. If the numbers from 0 to 9 were written in a random order and were shown to you — 9 8 2 7 4 6 1 3 5 0, you wouldn’t be able to store it instantly because the brain is not trained to such a pattern before. However, if the numbers were grouped as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0, you wouldn’t even have to look at them twice to remember. Thus the brain interprets the pattern and easily recognizes it. All we did was to regularize the layout and relied on a pattern which was already existent in your head. Thus organizing your system will help you a lot in visual identification too.
To achieve a perfect level of organization, a scheme has to be developed. John Maeda, in his book, “The laws of Simplicity” gives 4 steps for an efficiently organized system – SLIP scheme:
- SORT - Randomly group your ideas that comes to your mind.
- LABEL – Put a label on each of the groups as u feel.
- INTEGRATE – Combine groups which you think are similar.
- PRIORITIZE – Give attention based on set priority.
The above steps are quite self-explanatory so I’m pretty sure you will understand what they mean. These steps are just a process to help you organize better thus enabling you to incorporate simplicity in your designs and work. As presented above, SLIP is a free-form process for finding answers to the question of “What goes with what?” The many little bits of post-it notes that you hang on your wall (in due time) are the system of chaos brought to order with your fingertips. Finding the organizational scheme that works best for you is a wise investment.
However, there is also a grey area in simplicity. Let us consider the example of a website selling laptops. If the advertisement for a laptop is poorly presented with fewer features, then the computer experts will hate it, thus ending up giving an idea to the customers that the website is incompetent. On the other hand, if they advertise with many features, the users might think the website is trying to confuse them and they might not even trust the site anymore, thus the sales will dwindle. For example, how many mainstream users know the meaning of FSB Bus speed or L2 Cache RAM capacity? So, the website is indirectly pointing out that the user is quite clearly not qualified to visit the website. So, simplicity is not just about removing, hiding or organizing elements, its is also about how users interpret Simplicity and how they define it.
But of course, making things too simple can become pretty complicated. Getting rid of features is really hard and it doesn’t always work as we expect it to. Achieving simplicity in your system doesn’t mean complexity is completely eliminated. As I said earlier, despite the fact that the Google Search page looks unbelievably simple, there is a high precision of complexity existent underneath which is making the search simpler.
Simplicity is in our head!
The beauty of Simplicity is that people will use the “simple tools” and adapt them to suit their needs. Simplicity is an experience and it happens in the user’s head. Simplicity is what we think it is. It is we who decide what is simple and what isn’t. Twitter is one of the simplest ideas ever contemplated but, it is astounding to see how people have built such a sophisticated ecosystem out of it thus creating newer and unimaginative ways to interact with each other and for global information exchange. Thus, even though the tool is simple, complex behaviors emerge out of it.
Is simplicity as simple as it sounds?
Until now, we talked about how simplicity reduces complexity and makes everyday products easier to deal with. But, it is not always easy to reduce complexity and fairly impossible to eliminate it. There are individual loopholes that are persistent in each of the stages of simplification.
- You can reduce, but there is a limit to that too. Not everything can be taken off from a system and sometimes, newer features must be added to make things simple. Most of the times, very few features can make things complex.
- Hiding the unimportant features helps but the problem is, where do we hide it? We need to hide them such that it can be easily found thus not disturbing the logical functionality of the system. We need to make sure we hide it in the right place so that additional features can be easily incorporated.
- Grouping the features in a germane manner works but the user is expected to have complex knowledge to be able to analyse it in a simple manner.
However confusing the situation may seem to be, one must firmly decide about the right place where the complexity must be put so that it doesn’t affect the functionality of the system, yet provide the user with the highest level of simplicity.
No matter how many times the designers argues about the amount of complexity involved in creating a simplistic design, the consumer would simply say, “I don’t care, it’s just supposed to work!”
In the next part, I shall discuss the aspects of Minimlaism and how it is employed in the web and beyond. Minimalism is more of an application rather than just a concept. It is what actually makes things look simple. Let us keep the rest of the discussion for the next part :)
Coming back to this article, I’m sure this isn’t quite the concept of ‘Simplicity’ you expected but as I said earlier, these are just a bunch of thoughtful insights I garnered throughout my research. If your approach the concept of Simplicity with a different perspective, please share it with us and help us make a clutter-free world. Thank you….
Sources and Further inspiration:
This site is devoted to John’s ongoing thought processes regarding the topic of simplicity. He wrote and designed a book entitled ‘The Laws of Simplicity’ to let the ideas take root. In his website, he continues to develop the thoughts that surround the paradoxically complex topic of simplicity.
Many website owners damage their sites by continually adding features and content when they should be simplifying. In this post Paul Boag reveals why that happens and how to simplify your website.
Giles Colborne’s presentation discusses strategies for simplifying designs. It identifies two new rules for simplicity. It also looks at why simplicity has become so important in interaction design, whether simplicity and usability are the same thing and exposes some myths about simplicity.
Somewhere in the back of our brains is this idea that simplicity is something good; something worth striving for. But have you ever asked yourself why? Simplicity literally means freedom from complexity or intricacy. But then why is that good? This article might help you find the answer.