Simplicity, or the lack thereof, is one of the first things users notice as they acquaint themselves with a new interface. To make that first impression positive, UX designers should strive to further simplify even their most seemingly simple designs, not only for the sake of creating a delightful user experience, but also to give their digital product a competitive edge.
As attention spans contract and peoples’ lives grow ever busier, users are raising their standards for intuitive usability. If an app even seems remotely difficult to use, many users won’t bother to install it. They’ve developed a set of expectations for speed, functionality, and design, and it’s up to designers to at least meet those expectations (if not exceed them). That’s no small task in a world where $1.99 apps are expensive and a two-minute download is interminable!
However, UX designers are very close to the products they create, which makes it difficult to gauge whether users find those products simple and straightforward or confusing and cumbersome. Observing real users is the best way to measure the efficacy of a design, but sophisticated user testing isn’t always an option. In a worst case scenario, UX designers face the challenge of determining on their own whether users find an experience as simple as they, the designers, do. To solve this conundrum and deliver the simplest possible experience, UX designers should:
- Deconstruct a user’s initial encounter with an app: This exercise will reveal any design-related hiccups that negatively impact the user’s first impression.
- Balance affordances and conventions: Tapping into users’ familiarity with specific design elements and interaction patterns can reveal opportunities to further simplify an experience.
- Innovate first: Less a step in the simplification process and more of a mindset, designers should remember that solving the user’s problem is paramount; after innovation is over, we will have the time to simplify the solution.
Making the best first impression
In 2013, there were one million apps in Apple’s App Store. With many apps overlapping in functionality, users clearly have choices. If one app is too difficult to use, there surely is another, simpler alternative. Therefore, simplifying an experience is integral to user adoption.
Let’s think of the natural way a user might evaluate an app, step-by-step:
1. The need and the search
Users search for apps in an effort to fulfill some need. For example, a busy mom needs to share dates and times for different appointments with her family members. To fulfill this need, she searches the App Store for a “family calendar app” that she hopes will solve the problem.
2. The first Impression
According to the Nielsen/Norman group, the average user leaves a web page in about 10-20 seconds. Let’s assume our hypothetical busy mom has about 15 seconds to look at every app in the search results. The first app comes up on the screen, and the user’s first thought is, “Is this a family calendar app?”
Before even downloading the app and giving it a try, she is using her 15 seconds to determine whether the option will meet her needs. She is looking at the screenshots. She is using them to determine whether the app does what she wants it to do. Even before she makes the decision to download the app, the interface must show the user what functionality is available in a way that is unarguably clear and simple.
Suddenly, the very decision to install the app has everything to do with simplicity.
3. The basic promise
Once the calendar app passes the first round of evaluation, the user downloads it to her device. To decide whether she made the right decision, she tries adding an event. After all, the ability to easily add events is the basic promise of a calendar application.
Fulfilling a basic promise must be a simple experience for the user. Only beyond that point does she begin asking questions like, “Does this app do anything I might not have thought of but that I might be able to use?” or, “Does this app do anything I don’t need and that gets in my way?”
For example, the ability to add a video call link to every event shared with a contact might be useful for this user. She wasn’t looking for that feature, but she’s glad the app has it. On the other hand, the same feature could be an annoyance if it is enabled by default and there is no logical way to disable it. While this functionality is secondary to the app’s basic promise, it should never complicate the interface to the point where the basic promise is difficult to fulfill.
Simplicity depends on the balance of the basic promise and the delight factor.
Whether it occurs through the App Store or another gateway, UX designers should consider how their users might approach this initial evaluation process. Though the process might last only seconds – in fact, it should last only seconds – simplicity makes an excellent first impression. But as we’ll see, simplicity can do more than just convince users to try your product. It can ensure that they continue using it, too.
Simplicity through conventions and affordances
In his popular book, Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug writes about many aspects of making websites easy to use. Opportunities to simplify the user experience, he writes, include making clicks mindless and ensuring important information is clear and apparent. According to Krug, one of the best ways to simplify an experience is to take advantage of users’ experiences with other websites. Designers shouldn’t forget: “Conventions are your friend.”
Conventions, as most UX designers know, are design elements about which users have preconceived notions due to previous encounters. The hamburger icon, for example, is a universal convention for menus. Users recognize it because they have seen it before. Few will be unsure about its purpose.
After walking themselves through a user’s first encounter with a product, UX designers should ask themselves whether they’re missing opportunities to use conventions. They might find that replacing a specific element or two with known conventions lends additional simplicity to the product, saving users time and increasing adoption. Every time a designer neglects to use a convention, he or she must introduce new visual language that users might not understand quickly enough or at all. As a result, it’s difficult to make a good first impression.
Affordances are similar to conventions except that users haven’t necessarily encountered them during other digital experiences. In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman talks at great length about affordances, elements that “make sense” to users because they remind them of objects they use in daily life.
A magnifying glass icon that lets users perform a search is an example of an affordance because users recognize it as an object used to search for things in the physical world. Interestingly, it’s also an example of a convention. Due to its affordance, the magnifying glass has become conventional. This is not the case with binoculars or flashlights, which are also objects people use to search for things.
What does all of this have to do with simplifying an experience? As designers break down the user’s initial encounter with their creation, they’re already looking for opportunities to include conventions. They should also be on the lookout for:
- Affordances they can replace with conventions
- Opportunities to use affordances in place of something else.
When used appropriately, conventions and affordances can drastically improve UX. Using conventions first enables designers to take full advantage of users’ previous experiences. Affordances are an effective “next option” as they draw on users’ understanding of the physical world.
Continuing to innovate
How do we ever design something innovative if we’re constantly trying to keep things simple and familiar? Every time a designer strives for simplicity by balancing conventions and affordances, he or she must ask this question first:
Does the existence and placement of this element make sense in the context of this page, application, or product?
The beauty of this approach is that it allows designers to innovate first and simplify later. Looking at the interface as its own entity without comparing it to anything else means designers can create something unique without having to qualify it with industry standards. Only second should come the Krug/Norman evaluations:
Does this design use enough conventions to be instantly recognizable to users? Do elements in this design hold affordances to what their functionality is?
Ultimately, a user is creating a conceptual model of the elements in an interface with the help of conventions and affordances, thus making a novel experience instantly recognizable and easy to use. Designers should exploit the freedom to innovate and only afterward button up any elements that could be more straightforward or familiar.
It’s important to understand that simplicity is not the opposite of innovation or an excuse for limiting functionality. Applications with complex functionalities can be simple to use, while applications with very light functionality can be excessively complex.
For example, a website contact form has very simple functionality, but filling out an excessive number of form fields on a mobile device can become quite complex. On the contrary, a contact form that detects a user’s location has more complex functionality, but it’s much easier to use because it eliminates a number of fields the user would otherwise have to complete.
It just goes to show that the simplification depends heavily on context. As long as designers remember the context in which they’re operating, they will never have to sacrifice innovation in the name of simplicity.
Experimenting with simplicity
Simplicity improves UX by providing clarity to the user: clarity of output (what can the application do for me?) and clarity of input (what actions can I take?). During the design process, UX designers must take steps to ensure that an experience is as simple as possible. Deconstructing users’ first impressions and applying conventions and affordances where necessary will help designers make seemingly simple experiences even simpler.
Here are some ideas for UXers looking to simplify their creations to the greatest extent possible:
- Competitive analysis: Research what others are doing to reveal how others are using conventions and affordances to improve UX.
- Revisit existing designs: Think about the objects behind the functionality of design elements to get creative with the concept of affordance. Identify the sources for existing design elements (if an obvious source exists) and try to think of replacements to inspire new ideas.
- Look beyond conventions: For experiences that already make heavy use of conventions, UX designers can challenge themselves by replacing those conventions with new affordances that aren’t in common use but are instantly recognizable. After all, today’s creativity is tomorrow’s convention.
In all of their experimentation, UX designers should remember that users will always seek simplicity in the digital products they use. This is an immutable fact. Therefore, designers should create experiences with the psychology of the user in mind. That process begins with innovation – the design should always help the user solve a problem – and taps into the conventions and affordances that make experiences even simpler than they were before.
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