“Make it simple!” How many times have you heard that during a design critique, or seen it in a creative brief? As designers, we’re constantly aiming to deliver “simplicity.”
There’s no question that simplicity can make the difference between a good experience and a bad one. Most of our users lead busy, complicated lives and they’ve been conditioned to expect the most from their digital experiences.
But, even though teams and stakeholders can quickly align around “simplicity,” it’s too vague to be an actionable goal. And if that wasn’t bad enough, a superficial understanding of simplicity can result in experiences that are more complicated and frustrating.
If we want to design for simplicity, we have to understand exactly what it is, and how it translates to our users’ experiences. What makes an experience “simple” to them?
What is simplicity?
When we start by considering our users, we see there is one, overarching principle that governs simplicity:
An experience will only feel simple if it requires less effort than other similar experiences a user has encountered. Now, to continue clarifying our understanding, we can even break down the concept of effort a bit further. There are three types of effort that usually account for most of the friction in our experiences, they are: visual (or perceptual) effort, workflow related effort, and cognitive effort. Let’s review them:
Visual or Perceptual Effort
Perceptual simplicity relates to how quickly users perceive order and meaning when they first interact with an interface. Relevant content and functionality should be clearly identifiable. And, unnecessary elements should be removed, so users can quickly scan for what they need.
To achieve this kind of simplicity, screen elements must have a clear sense of hierarchy or visual weight in relationship to other elements. Designs should incorporate grouping techniques, like enclosing related elements within a visual boundary or cluster.
Perceptual simplicity is a very powerful method to reduce visual effort. Experiences that lack perceptual simplicity make users work unnecessarily hard when they first encounter a product. Users may take this as a sign that the rest of the product will be complicated to use, or worse, that little attention to detail went into its construction. It may feel unprofessional or untrustworthy.
In many circumstances, reducing visual effort is the first simplification strategy you should implement, but, don’t stop there!
Complex workflows make users expend too much time and physical effort to complete tasks. They often require steps that feel unnecessary. Think about filling out a lengthy lead-generation form just so you can download PDF, or search tools that ask you to set up overly specific search parameters before you see your results. Workflows like these don’t feel simple.
Complicated workflows may also make users traverse the interface in ways that feel cumbersome, like pressing a series of buttons or links that seem to be randomly distributed across the screen. In contrast to perceptually effortful experiences, features and content within a complex workflow may not be difficult to decipher, but they feel laborious or tedious to interact with.
The goal of workflow simplification is to create “streamlined” experiences that deliver the speed and immediacy users love. Streamlined experiences show users that you respect their time. Of course, reducing workflow effort, like other approaches to simplicity, takes ruthless prioritization and reduction of elements, and making smart assumptions about your users.
Here are two approaches to workflows. To get a Renters Insurance quote from many established insurance carriers, like the one above, you’ve got to provide dozens of pieces of information across a number of discrete steps. By contrast Jetty, the insurance upstart, leverages data to reduce user effort. You can get a quote after filling out just two required fields. Jetty is not a client, but they appear to understand how workflow simplicity can help drive business.
Cognitive effort is the third and most taxing type. People experience cognitive effort as conscious uncertainty and confusion, when they don’t know how to interact with your interface in a predictable way to accomplish their goals. This might mean they have to guess if something’s unfamiliar, or remember a piece of information they’ve forgotten.
Example #1: If a button has a vague label, your user doesn’t know what will happen when they tap it. Having to guess means they’re expending cognitive effort.
Example #2: If an onboarding tutorial spells out all the details of how an interface works at once, users have to remember them all when they actually get the chance to use it.
This tutorial from American Express has questionable value for cardholders who want to learn how to read their statements and track their activity, mostly because they’re not likely to remember each of the eight functions described after they close it. To American Express’ credit, just including a tutorial is a step in the right direction in helping users understand various functionality. In our expert opinion, a better tutorial approach would offer individual, contextual hints as users engage with the screen, prioritizing features they are likely to need first.
Here’s the thing: people want to avoid cognitive effort as much as possible. They have limited time and energy to spend on a tasks, and bumping up against these limits is unpleasant.
Experiences that don’t require a lot of cognitive effort feel intuitive and familiar because they’re predictable. They don’t require a lot of thinking or interpretation. They use clear, precise words to describe concepts. And because they don’t make users hold anything in their memory, they’re free to engage in the flow of using the app.
For many designers and stakeholders, simplicity evokes images of sparse and minimalist interfaces. While it’s true that reduction of UI elements can create a simple experience, it’s only part of the story. Deconstructing simplicity into three dimensions: perceptual, workflow, and cognitive helps designers take a more holistic approach to simplifying their products.
Each one of these three dimensions are often interconnected. Because design decisions often have unintended consequences, we need to be conscious that our decision to simplify one dimension effort may result in increased complexity of another. Our goal should be to simplify the aspects of the experience that cause the most friction for our target users.
For example a design may achieve perceptual simplicity by hiding a list of links behind a menu item. But, requiring users to interpret if that menu item is the right place to look for the link in the first place, the choice actually increases cognitive effort.
Kayak simplifies it’s global navigation by nesting secondary functions under “More,” however, few users are likely to know that Guides are located here.
Likewise, you might increase workflow effort by ordering an unfamiliar task across multiple steps. Such an approach might make this task more approachable by increasing cognitive and perceptual simplicity. This is the approach Lending Tree takes with their mortgage loan application.
In this example, users are confronted with a single question at each step, and select from a set of clear, predefined answers. This design approach makes an intimidating process much more approachable for consumers who are new to the space, like someone who’s getting a quote for the first time, because they only have to focus on one concept at a time.
Where to start?
So, if optimizing one type of simplicity affects other types, how do you know where to focus your design efforts? Start by thinking about how frequently your users will engage with your tool, product or interface.
For things that they’ll interact with infrequently, like a product landing page or a consumer-facing insurance quote, visual simplicity might be a priority. Visual simplicity helps prevent unfamiliar users from being overwhelmed.
However, for experiences that users engage with frequently, exposing more information and functionality at any given step may actually create more simplicity in the long run, because it reduce the amount of steps they have to take on an ongoing basis. For expert users, visual and cognitive effort is likely to recede over time as they learn from previous experiences. For example, Lending Tree’s step-by-step loan intake might infuriate a seasoned agent who fills out a dozen applications per day, because it may feel too slow and rigid.
In the world of product design, there are rarely any perfect ways to “make something simple.” However, understanding simplicity as a function of effort and breaking down that effort into its different parts can help us to pinpoint which design solutions are best for our users.