Less is More: Simplifying your User Experience

In this look at simplicity in User Experience Design, author Trent Martens gives us a rundown of the caveats of overwhelming users with unnecessary choices.

Too many options can confuse and weigh down users. Don’t overwhelm them.

Through the rapidly increasing amount of information, messaging, reviews and data online, we know that consumers are presented with more options than ever before. As a result they are becoming more and more savvy and resourceful to research products and services that they’re interested in. Ultimately they’re becoming wiser with how they are making their buying decisions and more demanding to have the information they need, when they need it.

As marketers, it’s important to consider the opportunity we have to lead our consumers from inquiry to purchase by offering them what they need—and only what they need—at every step of the process. No more, no less.

When considering what and when we’re delivering to customers, we need to keep in mind that most consumers are now doing their research through multiple platforms. Whether it’s through their laptop browsers, iPads, Blackberrys or iPhones, the need to develop smart user experiences and intuitive interfaces on every platform is greater than ever.

So how do you ensure you’re providing this to your customers?

Be one step ahead

It’s something that the advertising industry has excelled at for years and something that the digital world can certainly learn from. Who are we communicating with? How do they think and what do we need to say to persuade them towards an action? In our case, what information and options do we need to provide them with to move them to the next step towards their purchase decision?

To fully answer these questions, let’s take a look at the restaurant dining experience. Generally, once someone sits down to eat, you have their full attention and their commitment to spend money with you. For whatever reason, they’ve chosen to engage in a dining experience at your restaurant. In the same way, once someone lands at a website, mobile site, iPhone app, or any user experience that you’ve provided, you have their full attention. Now all you have to do is keep their attention and walk them down the path that you’ve carefully planned and thought through.

How do you carefully plan and think through a user experience?

Start with the end user

Clearly establishing who is going to be using the interface, identifying their wants and desires surrounding your product, and then mapping out their decision making process are things that can’t be overlooked in your planning process. Can you imagine sitting down for dinner at your favorite restaurant and having your waiter ask you what you would like to drink, and then immediately ask what you think you’ll want for dessert later on? You likely have enough trouble trying to figure out what you want for a main course, or if you even want an appetizer.

Stage what you’re presenting your users with in digestible pieces—too much too soon may heighten your drop off rate.

No dessert until you finish your meal

There is a common sense approach to how you are sold at a restaurant. Much like how they stage your dining experience, in web and mobile experiences, our approach needs to be as equally simplistic.
This is where the idea of less is more comes into play. It’s centered around the notion that we don’t want to make our customers think more than they have to. The fewer decisions, the better.

This becomes easier to accomplish when we consider all of our customer touch points throughout the decision making process and specifically what they’ll be looking for at that point. With how connected most people are now, an important part of this is recognizing what platform they’re using and what specific information they’re looking for. An example of this would be someone looking up your website on their way to your store in hopes of finding your address.

Ask yourself the following questions when approaching UX design:

  • What can we take out of the experience to make it easier for our users to make decisions?
  • Are we presenting them with a desert option too soon in the process? What options and upgrades would be better suited for another menu at a later time?
  • How do we keep them engaged through the whole experience?

Less really is more

After identifying what environment or device consumers will be on at any given point along the way, remove all unnecessary options along that path, giving them exactly what they need at each step—no more, no less. The end result will be smaller bounce rates, more sales, customers who feel like you understand their needs, and hopefully as a result, more word of mouth referrals.

About the Author

Trent Martens

With over a decade of experience in the digital media space, Trent has established himself as not only an award-winning creative mind, but a thought leader in the industry. After his early years in the 90s working in Silicon Valley, he spent the majority of his career at Suitcase Interactive in Calgary, Alberta, Canada leading a team of designers and writers to service some of Canada’s largest brands. His success has come from his unique approach to online solutions where he continually focuses on the real value of the product or service and then ensures that the work being produced resonates with authenticity.

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25 Comments

  • Patrick Reply

    Great article. I like the restaurant comparison. I think to often apps and sites try to force feed us dessert before we can enjoy the appetizer.

  • Eugen Schön Reply

    Hi Trent,
    I wrote a post on “Simplicity Innovation” a few months ago speaking about simplicity/design trends/building loyalty. It should interest you.
    Best regards
    Eugen

  • orangeguru Reply

    I am really sick and tired about all these “simple” & “simplification” articles.

    One has to wonder if the authors of such pieces suffer from cognitive dissonance or are simply trying to make themselves attractive for clients only.

    Many of the most successful websites, consumer and business software are highly complex, complicated and have a high learning curve.

    Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Micrsoft Office, Photoshop etc. are hardly simply or simplified.

    UX Freaks who always try to participate the user behaviour go on my tits. Give the user “clean” tools, enable them, stop hiding complexity or treating them like idiots by simplifying stuff.

    A MS-Word, Facebook- or eBay-User has a gazillion options what he or she can do. Is that overwhelming? Nah, only if you have an “unclean” interface.

    Simplifying websites and tools lead to crappy websites and software. Do people want MS-Works or MS-Office?

    Even many consumers prefer the real Photoshop over the cut down and “simplifyed” consumer version.

    One last thing: the restaurant metaphor really sucks.

    • Rahdez Reply

      OrangeGuru: Simple does not imply it is not complex. What it really means is it is easy to use and the “learning curve” you speak of is comprehensible. Something very complex can be designed “simply” and that does not mean taking away functionality.
      I am not sure what you mean by “UX Freaks who always try to participate the user behaviour go on my tits.”
      Maybe YOU should think ahead before you write and “participate” the reader.

  • theothermatt Reply

    Crikey. Too much coffee being chugged in your parish, old son!

    I wonder if you’ve ever participated in any form of usability testing session? In a neat twist on Pareto’s Law, a common observed behaviour is that users will spend 80% of their time using 20% of the features of an interface. The most obvious and simple ones, not surprisingly. Only a small subset of users will actively seek and use the more complex or demanding features, because they are attempting to do something that is above and beyond the most common actions performed via the interface. Facebook? I don’t have figures, but I think it’s beyond argument that massively more people simply update their status and scroll through their news feed items than, for instance, manage their online contacts, or upload videos or create fan pages.

    Amazon spend an enormous amount of time ensuring that the process of finding and buying a product is as simple as possible. 1-Click, for instance, isn’t feature creep, is it? You can do lots and lots of things beyond that and many of them are visible within the interface by default, but that doesn’t mean the whole hasn’t been designed with a very careful eye on the essential simplicity of the stuff that really matters.

    Your other examples of Photoshop and MS Word are a tad obtuse – who pretends that Photoshop is anything other than a sophisticated professional tool used by people who understand from the outset that mastering it will take a lot of instruction and practice? And yet who would pretend that Adobe give no thought to how the functions of Photoshop and the menus, mouse-clicks and keyboard shortcuts by which you control them are most effectively and simply used?

    And finally, MS Word is a horrible piece of software that neatly illustrates why a focus on simplicity is always desirable when you are designing for the common denominator, not the expert user. It forces you to learn a large number of features in order to achieve a range of entirely modest aims, all of which should be much simpler to accomplish (most of the formatting controls, for instance).

    Swing and a miss, I’m afraid.

  • Dean Wilkes Reply

    I agree, the restaurant metaphor doesn’t completely work – the user can’t be in another restaurant (website) at the click of a button. However, the message of simplicity is a good one.

    Orangeguru mentions sites that are complex – but these sites have also gone to great lengths to ensure (not always successfully) that when the user starts a process (such as listing an item on eBay) that the process is as simple and logical as possible. Complex sites can still appear simple and easy to use – and why would you make anything more complex than it needs to be (unless it’s a puzzle or game etc).

    Of course, being easy to use isn’t the only reason a site will be successful. Facebook isn’t always easy to use – which is annoying sometimes – but what’s the real alternative if all your friends use it? That doesn’t mean people wouldn’t enjoy using it more if some parts were easier (or perhaps they’d even use those parts more than they currently do).

    And don’t assume that all users are of the same level of experience/ability. Hiding complexity can work for inexperienced or one-off users. You wouldn’t often want to limit your user base to regular users only.

    I also don’t think the author is talking so much about hiding or removing options so much (ie removing a sites complexity) – but about presenting them in a way that feels right or comfortable. The questions or steps are still required, but they are presented clearly and in a fashion that the user feels comfortable with.

    Ultimately it can all depend on context – how well trusted a brand is, how desperate the user is to make a purchase etc as to how important the simplicity of a site/process is – but if you have a choice about how to implement things – why wouldn’t you implement it in the most logical, expected and easy to use way that you can?

  • jaybray Reply

    Thanks for the post. I agree in principle that simple is better, however with Twitter, Facebook, Email, IM, and any number of additional things happening in the background, I question whether any website ever truly has our full attention anymore.

  • Joshua Johnson Reply

    Great article, Trent. I have family in Edmonton and I’m making a trip to Calgary in January. Maybe we can grab coffee sometime.

    **Response to orangeguru**

    I agree with your assertion that simple, minimal, and sterile isn’t “always” the best approach. However, I didn’t see the author suggest that in this article.

    Clients and users are screaming for simpler interfaces to products and websites. 5-10 years ago it seemed like no one talked about usability. Even clients are noticing the difference between a good experience and a bad ones. Users used to blame themselves for not understanding how to format their document correctly in MS-Word. Now they’re blaming the software and moving over to Google Docs. Ebay is losing market share and driving all subsidiary businesses they own into the ground. And, I wouldn’t recommend using Amazon or Craigslist as UX examples for designers and developers. There are many other reasons those sites work. They’re useful, not usable. They own the world’s classified content and retail products. The user doesn’t really have another logical option at this point. Great UX is the new economy in design that is not only recognized by design professionals but the market is finally demanding it.

    After reading your rebuttal it seemed like you were saying functionality and content is all that matters, and that ugly and unusable interfaces should continue being the future of our web experience. I won’t assume you meant it that way because I would be putting words in your mouth for personal gain. It’s seems like you are angry. Maybe you’ve lost some clients to those nuts who care about the user above the product and study “why” instead of just “what” in web and software development. Maybe that’s why you still use a username (orangeguru) like back in the Prodigy/ AOL days when the web was cool. Or, perhaps you are afraid that a public outlash against UX like the one you made here would cause you to lose even more clients. I’m not sure this is true but I can’t figure any other reason for the strong feelings you’ve expressed.

    True user experience doesn’t devalue functionality or content in exchange for pretty pixels. It actually does the opposite. A great UX will enable the user to experience to experience MORE of the software’s intended use and leave feeling smart.

  • Chris Mower Reply

    I enjoyed your thoughts, though I don’t think the restaurant analogy was as effective as you’d hoped.

    I subscribe to the idea of simplification. I think one thing that people don’t quite understand is that you can have a complex program, web app, or web site, but still make it simple–the less someone has to think to use the software, the better.

    I agree that keeping the end-user in mind is key to good usability. Sometimes as the designer or programmer, we think a feature would be really cool, but in reality, it’s just taking up extra space.

  • benedetta Reply

    less is good but not more and not always. I personally really appreciate semplicity and essentiality but sometimes I would like to have the possibility to choose between less and more.

  • Rosamunda Reply

    While I like the article, I don´t quite understand the restaurant comparision.
    In a restaurant they don´t need to to show their desserts right after you sit, because you suppose there will be a dessert offer.
    In a website, how do you keep things simple while showing all you offer to a potential customer (that doesn´t know what to expect of your entire site at a first glance) without overwhelming him?
    Sometimes you have to create at least several menues that show all your site´s sections, and many menues are quite overwhelming sometimes.

  • Warren Reply

    Wow, this guy is good.

    I’d love to grab lunch with you sometime.

  • neatnest Reply

    Thanks a lot for your article. Designing a website is really not an easy job.

  • Jason Reply

    It seems a number of people are missing the point, the article IS valid and so is the restaurant metaphor. What Trent was saying is that you need to give only relevant information to the user when he/she wants it, not throw everything at once on the home page. Does it make sense if Amazon was asking for your credit cart info on the home page? You’ll be providing it soon enough why not just show it now? Yea, cuz it’ll throw people off and decrease their trust. That parallels the dessert argument.

    These are the same ideas presented by John Maeda (The Laws of Simplicity), and Stephan Krug (Don’t Make Me Think), the latter which is a stable on the developer’s bookshelf. Also look into “The Paradox of Choice”, an old study showing that the more information people are presented with the lower their ability to comprehend said info and make decisions. Then there’s the success of 37Signals…

    I’m citing these examples because I hate those who assume these “simple” and “simplicity” articles equals stupidity, without any facts to back up their claims. I can imagine these folks saying “We need more features! Not enough features!”

    Cheers

    • Baldwin Reply

      Nice information. I agreed your points. :)

  • Jack Reihl Reply

    Very good post Trent. I especially like the restaurant analogy. Thanks for sharing.

  • Trent Martens Reply

    Hey guys thanks for all the feedback over the last few weeks. There’s some good feedback here and some where I feel the article was a bit misinterpreted. So just to respond to some of the comparisons that have been sent out that are more application/software based, I wanted to reiterate that these principles were initially aimed more at marketing driven UX design. Design where we’re thinking about the trail of decisions a consumer needs to make, all the way from initial interest to actual purchase. Of course with more advanced users in niche areas they’re going to be more savvy to be presented with more options/features/functionality and this is up to us as designers to ask the right questions up front to identify these cases, but with most consumer-centric design the idea here is to be one step ahead of your user, staging each decision for them and building trust along the way by presenting them with precisely what they need to make each decision. Not up selling or cross selling at inappropriate times. Keeping the ADD filter in high gear to avoid high drop off rates. Of course it’s more of a principle than a rule, so that’s where common sense comes into play. Hope this helps to clarify, and thanks for all the feedback here, I think it’s all good discussion.

  • Prakash Reply

    Fantastic post, Trent. I love the theme you’ve taken. Thank you for this useful & impressive info. Start giving more best articles like this.

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