Is simplicity the best way to ensure usability? If we strip everything down to the bare essentials, what do we lose in the process?

modus operandi template

It can often seem like there’s a straight line between simplicity and usability.

Improving usability and user experience involves working to reduce confusion, and the simpler something is, the less confusion there can be.

If an object (or website) is simple, it’s immediately apparent how to use it. The more complexity you introduce, the more difficult that becomes, and so ‘keep it simple’ can seem like a solid usability rule of thumb. Just think of the KISS principle in web design – which literally stands for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ (though it’s also used to mean Keep It Short and Simple, or Keep It Simple and Straightforward).

Simplicity is also an important component of accessibility: simplifying language and interfaces makes them more accessible to users with cognitive disabilities, and simplified design can be more accessible to users who have visual impairments.

These things are all true – but to conclude from them that simplicity is automatically the best way to ensure usability is, well, an over-simplification.

(See? My point is being made already!)

Simple isn’t always effective

While simple objects (and websites, and interfaces) can be more intuitive and easier to use, that doesn’t always make them preferable from a usability standpoint. As an example of what I mean, let’s take two steering wheels:

A simple graphic of a basic car steering wheel.

Example 1: a simple steering wheel

A Sauber Formula 1 steering wheel, which is rectangular in shape and crammed with multicoloured buttons and dials. At the top is a row of lights, and below that a row of neon numbers. Every element of the steering wheel is labelled with copious arrows and explanations. A caption at the top reads: Buttons, switches, levers, LEDs and display on a Formula One steering wheel.

Example 2: a Formula 1 steering wheel

You might naturally assume that the first steering wheel has better usability; it’s obvious what it does and how to use it, while the second steering wheel is a nightmarish hellscape of buttons that looks like it requires a year’s intensive study and an advanced degree in engineering to use properly. That’s because it’s a Formula One car steering wheel.

F1 drivers need to be able to do much more with their steering wheels than just direct the car and occasionally sound the horn. As WIRED magazine wrote in a 2014 article, “when you’re going wheel-to-wheel with someone like four-time world champ Sebastian Vettel at 180 mph, you can’t take a hand off the wheel to do, well, anything. Every task a driver might need to do, every bit of information he might need to know, is quite literally at his fingertips.”

A regular car steering wheel, while much less confusing, is all but unusable in the hands of a Formula One racing driver, because it just doesn’t do what they need it to.

To use a more web-relevant example, imagine an ecommerce website which only has a single checkout button on the product page. One button, one path to checkout. It’s as simple as it can be, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the usability is improved. Users might not want to have to scroll right down to the bottom of the page – or right back up to the top – to complete a purchase. A single checkout button simplifies things, but it creates inefficiency and inconvenience for the user.

Mobile: Featureless or functional?

Mobile UX is another great illustration of where the ‘simplicity = usability’ argument can often fall down. Smartphone screens are much smaller than desktop or laptop screens, which means there’s much less real estate to play with; so when it comes to creating a mobile web or mobile app version of your product, some things have to go.

But how many times have you used the mobile version of a website or application only to be stymied by the complete lack of a feature you really need? I think Gmail’s mobile app is mostly decent, but I’m aggravated by the fact that Google apparently didn’t think the ability to hyperlink text in emails was an important feature to include. I have often given up on trying to compose emails in the Gmail app in favour of waiting until I get to a desktop computer so that I can do it properly.

Screenshot showing the email composition screen in the Gmail Android app. A new email is being composed with the words: Hey! I saw this article and thought of you. The words 'this article' are highlighted, but no option to hyperlink them is displayed.

I’m sorry, Dave. I can’t let you do that.

The Goodreads mobile app is another notorious offender, with the ability to browse by series, switch between editions, add a new book and other functions missing from the app; and Trello’s app is lacking in a number of features like the ability to copy checklists.

In other words, while there’s a lot to be said for a lack of complexity, you shouldn’t be trying to simplify for the sake of it – particularly at the expense of functionality – with the belief that usability will automatically be improved.

Good design is the key

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you should throw everything and the kitchen sink at your website either. Over-crowded web designs or interfaces can still be off-putting and impenetrable – not to mention that overloading them with bells and whistles causes websites to load more slowly, which is a major UX no-no.

But stripping everything down to its bare bones is also not the answer (despite the rampant popularity of minimalist website designs). Websites can still be content-rich and engaging without being cluttered or convoluted. Good design has the power to combine functionality with an appealing, intuitive user experience.

A clean, minimalist website design called Modus Operandi, which features pastel-coloured images of flowers and plants in a grid layout.

Non more minimal – the Modus Operandi website template

In the end, it all comes down to what you need your website or product to do. The Formula One steering wheel in our earlier example needs to have every single function for controlling the car packed into a small area; regular steering wheels do not.

In the same vein, an artistic portfolio with a simple, clean design is trying to achieve something very different to a children’s website like WB Kids or Cartoon Network, where bright colours, animations and interactive items leap off the page. Can you imagine trying to attract a young audience with stock photographs of coffee cups and endless whitespace?

While simplicity can be (and often is) a by-product of improving usability, it shouldn’t be the goal. If your site or interface needs to be complex, then so be it; a good design can make it usable without sacrificing functionality.

Get a newsletter that isn't all about us...

Subscribe for weekly, hand-picked articles about UX, design, and more every Friday—from the Be Good to Your Users blog and the rest of the whole darn web.

...get a little taste right here. 👅 🍭

Rebecca Sentance is the Editor of digital marketing websites ClickZ and Search Engine Watch. Having spent most of her life on the internet, she has somehow managed to wrangle her way into writing about it for a living. When not publishing articles on digital marketing/SEO/UX, she can be found blogging about journalism on isitjournalism.wordpress.com or tweeting about nerdy things as @rainbowbex

Leave a Reply