The Search for Simplicity

Simplifying a user experience isn't just about aesthetics, it’s about being considerate of people’s time, mental capacity and emotions.

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If you were to spend a few hours at Smudge, there’s a phrase you’d hear at least once: “I think there’s a simpler way to do this”.

When most people think about simplicity in user experience design, they think of minimalist, uncluttered interfaces. And while that’s certainly part of the story, simplifying isn’t just about aesthetics. Simplifying a user experience means being considerate of people’s time, mental capacity and emotions. Visual minimalism is a by-product.

Since we’re humans designing experiences for other humans, some of the problems we’re solving can be incredibly complex. Simplicity doesn’t mean ignoring complexity. It means taking the time and effort to understand it so well that we can abstract it away from the user. As legendary author Mark Twain quipped: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

Once we’ve unpacked the complexity of a problem, we can start paring away the extraneous. Then we can create an experience that enables users to accomplish the task at hand as quickly and simply as possible.

This is especially important when building mobile software, since users are generally hoping for short, productive interactions. What’s more, as mobile software has become ubiquitous, mental models have evolved. These days, a user’s default expectation is for a consistently high-quality, frictionless experience. Anything else would be jarring. No pressure, then.

Achieving simplicity in any form of design requires a mix of confidence and humility. It takes confidence to make clear decisions about which features or elements to include, based on a deep understanding of the behaviour and motivations of users. And it takes humility to be sufficiently detached from the ownership of an idea to recognise when there’s a simpler way to do something.

Simplicity doesn’t mean ignoring complexity. It means taking the time and effort to understand it so well that we can abstract it away from the user.

The search for simplicity also takes courage and discipline. Most software projects have multiple stakeholders, with different motivations, goals and intentions. It takes discipline to propose a simple solution to a complex problem, and it takes courage to stand your ground when someone tries to introduce complexity (especially when that someone is a paying customer).

At Smudge, when we’re designing a product or service, we use a process called Intention-Based Design. A key goal in this process is to ensure that any proposed solution balances the needs of the user (desirability), the business goals of the customer (viability) and the capabilities of the technology (feasibility).

In all three of these areas, we search for simplicity...

1. Desirability / Usability

In a previous article, we outlined some rules of thumb related to usability. A truly desirable technology experience needs to match the conscious and subconscious expectations of the user, leverage different forms of communication appropriately, and empower users to work in a way that suits them. In others words, it’s our job to reduce friction.

Clear and functional UI design is a by-product of this. In the software space, that means eliminating unnecessary taps/clicks and page loads, minimising visual noise, removing unwanted features and actions, using fonts, colours and images intentionally, and surfacing the most important information at the right moment in the user journey.

Simplicity also means supporting non-linear workflows and designing for the fringes. Addressing edge cases can create complexity for the team building the software but it simplifies the experience for the user by enabling them to follow their preferred path through the interface as if it’s the only path.

2. Viability

At Smudge, many of our customers are large businesses. And large businesses can be complex and hierarchical. We’re tasked with navigating those environments, balancing the goals of different teams or departments, and helping them conceal their innate complexity from their customers and/or their customers’ customers.

When we succeed, it’s often because we’ve partnered with stakeholders who are willing to poke at the institutionalised complexity within their business. In some cases that complexity has resulted in the creation of particular roles or even entire teams.

In the business world, some people (knowingly or not) use complexity to preserve their empires or prevent others encroaching on their turf. Complexity can become a crutch and attempting to remove it is fraught with risk. But it’s our job to give it a try, even if that ends in heroic failure.

3. Feasibility

When thinking about technology, we’re always looking to build solutions that are sufficiently capable in the short term while being sustainable over the long term.

With mobile software, short-term capability typically means enabling users to access, generate and manipulate data of some kind, ideally without interfering with the environment where that data is stored. When we do this well, we maximise the potential of a business’s backend infrastructure whilst clearing a path for the user by moving technology out of the way.

Over the longer term, we try to create simplicity by using APIs that are reusable and built using industry-standard conventions. And since multiple people - both inside and outside Smudge - will potentially extend or maintain a product during its lifetime, we aim to design software architectures that are simple, modular and flexible.

In short, we strive for simplicity in everything we do - even when that makes it harder for us - because the simplest way to do something is usually the clearest, most efficient and most effective way.