Simplicity series - Shifting the focus

Occam’s razor states that:

❝The simplest solution is probably the right one❞

A lot of the focus of User Experience design is related to keeping things simple. Simplicity sounds easy right? When designing all you have to do to keep it simple is to remove stuff right? Wrong. There is a lot more to simplicity than merely stripping things back to the bare bones.

Image of a simple lego character Photo credit to: Emma b

It may be relatively straight forward to make something look simple but does it still achieve its goals? In part 1 we will be looking at some of the barriers to taking a simplicity focussed approach to design. In part 2 we will look at some of the methods we can apply to achieve simplicity.

Shifting the focus

Sophisticated methods can be employed to provide simple solutions to the user but before considering these methods your organisation may need convincing of the benefit of simplicity.

The primary block to achieving simplicity can often be organisational, including how services/products are sold and how customer feedback is gathered. This in turn impacts future design decisions. Research has shown that when evaluating products purely on features, those with the most features are considered superior to those with fewer by prospective users. It is important to understand that this is only true before the user has used the product or service. I would hypothesise that this user behaviour is changing but is still prevalent in some areas, particularly where the person making the decision on the purchase is not the end user.

Let’s look at a typical product business scenario: Your product is selling but you want to keep improving to stay ahead of your competitors. You brainstorm some ideas for features to add, and get feedback from customers. You asked your customers whether they want feature X they say yes along with requesting some other features that they think would be useful. So feature X and a bunch of other features get built into the next release. Now if you actually tested the system with end users, you would find 99% of them wouldn’t use feature X at all! Now consider the negative impact adding a whole bunch of feature X’s can have on the complexity of the user experience - you quickly end up with an unusable product.

VHS Video players (VCR’s) are a great example of this. Customers make their choices based on feature lists - as this is the information they were presented with in the shop. When they get them home and become a user they realise they have many features they don’t use. Not to mention that these added features create such a complex user experience that even simple tasks are hard to complete. We’ve all seen numerous instances of video players sitting there flashing ‘00:00’ - as the users were unable or didn’t want to invest the time / cognitive effort in figuring out how to set the time.

The organisational and changes to process required may include:

How you sell your product

Move away from feature lists. Instead, solve problems and provide solutions to real customer needs.

How you gather user feedback

Use the right testing method for the insight you are trying to gain. This might include observation, surveys, multi-variant testing, discovery or interviews.

How you make design decisions

Have a clear vision for the product and a measurable goal.

Further reading

Why testing everything doesn’t work
Total user control is a designers nightmare
How to interview users to find out what they really want
Features vs benefits

2014 - The year of the workflow

In the last couple of years there have been extensive changes in the way we are using the web, but our existing design workflows have struggled to keep pace. I see 2014 being the year of the workflow, as they rapidly evolve to match the new ways we are accessing the web.

We may already be designing responsive sites that work across a range of devices including: phones, tablets and smart TVs, but traditionally the tools we used and the context in which we used them were not designed with the responsive nature of the web in mind. I will be looking at how I see my workflow and the tools I use evolve to meet these new challanges.

Image showing workflow Photo credit to: Emma b

Less is more - Wireframing

Wireframing continues to move away from the traditional approach, where, currently, detailed templates and annotations are presented in static documents. This process is time consuming and doesn’t reflect the flexibility of todays “access anywhere” web. This year, I expect to be doing a lot more lo-fi sketching of wireframes, further front loading the design process, allowing for rapid ideation and iteration. There is no document set up, pixel grids or time costly applications to get to grips with.

In browser prototyping

As more frameworks and tools with the ability to cater for responsive design become available, rapid prototyping in browser will become the norm. Whether thats writing code manually (HTML/CSS/Javascript), using a framework (Bootstrap/Foundation) or responsive design tools (Macaw). The primary benefits of HTML prototypes over wireframes include:

  • They are relatively quick to implement and update allowing for fast design iterations.
  • They are a communication tool both within the design team and with the client.
  • They provide equivalent functionality to what we are actually producing, and extra context within the browser including responsiveness and real HTML elements. This allows for design solutions to be tested and iterated, producing appropriately informed designs.

Letting go of pixels

Traditionally, wireframes attempted to be pixel perfect representations of how we wanted a final page layout to appear to the user. Web access is no longer constrained to a desktop computer with a couple of different screen resolutions, there are numerous devices and scenarios through which the web can be accessed. Providing wireframes for all these potential scenarios just isn’t feasible, so finding new ways to communicate page layouts, structure and journeys will be essential. In response to this, focus will continue to shift from wireframes on to other deliverables that better communicate elements of the experience including tasks, content, hierarchy and style.

Taking a modular approach

I’ve found myself moving away from thinking about pages and templates and instead thinking about designs more in terms experiences, journeys, tasks and the functionality required to complete them. This approach lends itself to a modular mindset that allows for flexibility and reusability, making it easier to produce a consistent experiences that match the users goals.

With a deluge of internet connected devices, the ways in which the web is accessed will only continue to grow. Our workflows need to evolve in order to meet the new challenges and opportunities this will present; allowing time for real ideation and iteration will be essential. Moving away from the idea of the page towards experiences, tasks and modules will be part of this, and spending a large amount of time in digital wireframing tools should become a thing of the past.

Next on the Calendar

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