The Pursuit of Interface Design Simplicity

by August 1, 2002

“It is simplicity that is difficult to make.” Bertholdt Brecht’s truism has no doubt plagued many an interface designer (myself included) charged with creating “easy-to-use” solutions for the Web—and beyond. But why is the process of making things easy so challenging, and what can we do not to stray from the path to simplicity?

Undoubtedly, many obstacles stand in our way. One of the most difficult to overcome is the curse of feature-itis. Feature-itis rears its ugly head in marketing strategies that assert that each subsequent release of software needs to add more features in order to be marketable. (There’s no reason to upgrade if there aren’t lots of new features, right?) Mac OS X 10.2 boasts “150 new features” more than 10.1. Sounds great, but every last one of those adds more complexity to the interface. Feature-itis is also prevalent online. Each subsequent release (redesign) of (we’re currently on 7.x) crams more onto an already “littered” page.

Extensive options = ease of use. Or do they?

Some will argue that the more options an interface presents the easier it is to use. I’ve heard Edward Tufte, guru of clean information design, judge the quality of a Web interface by the number of links on the page. (His favorite site at the time was Dogpile with 176 links. Dogpile has since cleaned up their act.) Truthfully, a case can be made for presenting multiple interface options. After all, different people prefer different means of accessing information. Some use navigation systems, others hit the search box and some jump right to the site map. But, if more choices help achieve simplicity, how many choices does it take to start confusing people?

The other side of the coin can be seen in the recent redesign of Guru Worldwide. Three choices: are you a big company, small company or a job seeker? Tufte would be disappointed. Others, myself included, are of the opinion that less is more. Even in these circles, however, differences regarding what “simple to use” actually means are inevitable.

There are endless obstacles to creating simple solutions.

If such differences end up being settled through adequate testing of your target audience, they might actually bring you closer to simplicity. But the truth is, many other decision-making strategies are often exercised. Ever have a nice and easy interface design ready, when the CEO decides he wants x, y and z added?

Sometimes the design methodologies we employ are to blame. It’s popular practice to put a lot of emphasis on information organization and visual design (both very important, no doubt) and too little on analyzing the nuances of interaction. Is this sequence easy to follow? Is it optimized for efficiency?

Even when we’re able to get this far, we still need to contend with our final delivery platform: technology. “Great idea, but we can’t do it online.” or “We can’t get it to work without adding this.”

Given such obstacles, its no wonder that a simple solution is hard to come by. But there is hope, and it doesn’t rely on divine inspiration (though that couldn’t hurt). I’ve found the following approaches to be invaluable:

Don’t fight the medium.

Though some designers may criticize sites that don’t innovate, relying on Web conventions can often help us to create simpler interfaces. Most Web surfers expect navigation choices at the top or left hand corner of a page. That understanding amounts to one less step of thinking: Is this the menu? If you think conforming to Web standards leads to boring, rehashed design solutions, look at the automobile: All cars fall in line with accepted practices (gas pedal on the right, brake on the left), yet each car maintains a distinct personality (and subsequent emotional response).

Maintain a clear focus.

Each time you consider adding or removing an interface element, put it through the wringer. Is it a necessity or an accessory? Does it support your main message? Remember, it’s better to do one thing well, than many second-rate. Also, always be aware of how organization, presentation and interaction work together. Your focus can quickly go astray if these elements are in discord.

Look at it from your audience’s perspective.

Though you may be trying to ‘sell’ your product, your audience is coming to ‘buy’ it. This isn’t just a difference in verbs, it’s a difference in expectations, needs and attitudes.

Ultimately it’s the pursuit of simplicity that’s your best teacher. When you consistently work toward a simpler solution, you pick up a lot of valuable lessons along the way: what works and what doesn’t, what is necessary and what is interference. And though your task may seem daunting at times, remember that at the root of all complex problems lies a simple solution.

Tell us about the company you work for.

I spend my “full-time” hours working for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though NCSA is primarily known as the birthplace of the first graphical Web browser—NCSA Mosiac—the bulk of our work focuses on providing research scientists with the tools (supercomputers, networks, software etc.) they need to explore the frontiers of cosmology, nanotechnology, chemical engineering and beyond.

My other full-time hours are devoted to LukeW Interface Designs, an interface design and development company I’ve run since 1996.

What do you do?

Simply put, interface design. In a bit more detail, I make use of visual communication to make complex information manageable. (Most often in the form of Web applications and presences, system architecture designs and multimedia solutions.) In doing so I cull resources from the fields of Information Design, Graphic Design, Computer Science, Human Factors and Library and Information Sciences. I have also authored a book titled Site-Seeing: A Visual Approach to Web Usability.

What is your role in this industry?

I try to bring an understanding of visual communication principles (through presentations, courses, writings, etc.) to disciplines that have traditionally not given visual design sufficient emphasis. That includes anyone who considers the visual design process “making things pretty.”

What technical innovation could you not live without?

The World Wide Web. The obvious answer is that without it, I’d have to find another career. But the fact that the Web answers nearly all the questions I have and connects me to the world (despite my current position among the corn fields of central Illinois) is also a plus.