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How to Radically Simplify your Product
A very short guide to reducing visual and mental clutter.

Which is the best tool? The complicated one with many features, or the simple one with limited features that’s essential for one specific task?

The answer, of course, depends on which persona you’re designing for. But unless you’re targeting expert users on purpose (usually professionals or users who have devoted hundreds of hours to mastering your product), it’s generally better to simplify your product. Focus on making it an excellent tool for a narrow range of goals.

This flattens users’ learning curve, makes them feel more powerful and effective, and, crucially for business, keeps them coming back.

One example I like is the humble hammer. It has a heavy, flat head and a handle – an effective tool for pounding in nails. It also has a claw at the back, useful for removing nails (an important secondary task if you’re like me).

Simplicity itself

Let’s look at another nail-hammering tool…

Looks intimidating… where’s the ‘on’ button?

This is the Metabo KHE76 600341420 2-Inch SDS-MAX Rotary Hammer, a formidable $700 power tool. It has anti vibration technology and adjustable impact strength.

While ostensibly the better tool (it has more features) for hammering, it would like overwhelm the majority of new and intermediate users. They may actually be less effective at meeting their goals. The simpler tool would be more suitable for them.

This principle applies equally well to digital products.

Simplifying Digital Products

To interact with an interface-based product, users need to understand what’s on their screens. When you force people to decipher what they’re seeing, they spend mental energy figuring out what they can and can’t interact with. You’re preventing them from achieving their goals effectively.

Removing visual complexity

The design on the left has too much visual decoration. The design on the right is a simplified version.
The excellent audio compressor The Glue unfortunately still has a skeumorphic interface. Bizarrely it even includes screws in the corners (like an analog rack-mounted compressor)
Dropbox’s designers have pared down the UI to a bare minimum – and you can even hide elements further. The one obvious task is “Upload files”.

I want to pay special tribute to booking.com here, one of the sites I find the most frustrating to use. I went on a 4 month trip to Asia last year, and unfortunately had to use booking.com sometimes to find last minute rooms.

My heart sank whenever I started searching in their interface. When my search results came I’d be bombarded with prompts, little warning signs, and small popups, all urging me “last room available here!”, “rooms are running out!”, “book soon! hurry!”. All of this over an already maximalist interface with no graceful collapsing/hiding of data.

While no doubt good for the bottom line, probably bumping booking.com’s conversion rates up a little bit, users are more distracted and it takes more thinking for them to complete their goals.

Aaaarrrgghh!!

Simplifying a digital product also means making the interface visuals and interactions consistent across views and sections of the application.  With professional or enterprise-level software this can be difficult – especially when development teams have added features ad hoc over the years.

One solution to this is to simplify the development and design process itself by building a design system to work from when expanding an application.

When I worked at Ushahidi, the design team there created a pattern library to guide the product design of the new version of the company’s flagship data collection and mapping platform.

Building from this collection of repeatable, scalable elements allowed the platform designers to keep the experience consistent for users when viewing and interacting with data in different ways (for example, whether through charts or in a list).

Previously the developers had spent years deploying features on an as-needed basis in response to urgent humanitarian needs – leading to a highly consistent interface. The new pattern library was a big step towards simplicity.

Removing cognitive complexity

Anything your user has to think about when using your product that doesn’t contribute to their goals is cognitive waste.

In About Face, the authors divide what users do into Goal-Directed tasks and Excise tasks. Goal-directed tasks are activities which get users closer to achieving their goals. For example, if your goal is to go to London, getting on the plane directly contributes to your objective.

Excise tasks are activities which fulfil requirements of your tools or other agents. Buckling your seatbelt and keeping it on is something we’re required to do by airlines, and isn’t something that contributes to our goal.

Excise tasks only create friction – removing them creates smoother interactions, minimises cognitive load, and makes your users feel more powerful.

pinup.com making a common interaction design mistake. Yes, I’m sure I want to delete it, that’s why I clicked on the delete button. And why is there no ability to undo this kind of action?

Also think about which tasks you can automate. Don’t ask if users want to do something if it happens relatively often. Just go ahead and do it, and provide an easy undo option. This requires careful judgement, but in some cases you can make your product learn what’s the best course of action.

For example, I often use Ableton Live to produce music. When I start the application again after it crashes, I am given the option, with a somewhat verbose modal dialog box, to recover my work (the softwares saves the last Undo state as a backup).

The software could easily analyse my behaviour when this happens – if I choose to go ahead 9 times out of 10, say, it’s a safe bet to just recover my work automatically when restarting after a crash.

Often focusing on helping users achieve a single goal is a great basis for simplifying your product.

For example, years ago when I was living in Brazil I started a side project to create an augmented reality app. When you go to a big event outside with lots of people, like a huge concert or festival, it’s sometimes hard to find your friends. Usually these events don’t have landmarks/meeting points, and the large amount of people make moving around difficult. 

My plan was to create an app that would take someone’s location and display it on your phone using augmented reality.

I could have added tons of extra features to this – alerts, a messaging system, an indicator showing how close someone was to you if they were using the app, etc. – but I deliberately kept it straightforward.

If my app didn’t fulfil its one core reason for existing, then it was worthless. In the end I discovered that GPS wasn’t quite accurate enough for the purpose I had in mind, and gave up the project, but I remember the thinking behind it.

Ultimately, simplifying a digital product often takes careful consideration and can take time, but the satisfaction boost it will give users often more than makes up for the investment.