Simple is hard

“Simplify, simplfy!” we’re often told. Your service isn’t appealing to your customers? The answer’s simple: simplify! Your song isn’t connecting with your fanbase? Simplify! You aren’t shifting as many units as Apple? Simplify! It’s an easy mantra to mock, and even easier to swallow hook, line, and sinker.

What we need to do is distinguish between ‘simple’ and ‘simplistic’. It’s fairly obvious that content suffers when overrun by crowded, cluttered, un-navigable interfaces. If what you’re saying has value, you don’t need the kitchen sink to help you say it. But what do you need? And how much can you afford to throw out?

Only keep what you need.

Deleting everything that you don’t need only works when you know for sure what you do need. It’s tempting to think of simplifying a design as merely stripping away layers of visual ornamentation, but true simplicity comes more from the user experience than the look of the thing. Hiding an unsightly menu behind a hamburger icon is an easy way to de-clutter an app’s interface, for example, but does that count as simplification? All that achieves is forcing the user to make an extra click when they want to navigate somewhere. Even the Government’s Digital team agree that this is both important and hard (and the new gov.uk design is really impressive from a usability perspective).

Clearing away useless clutter is generally a good tactic, but there’s a distinct difference between simplifying a product and merely making it’s function more obtuse. Is one button with five functions really better than five buttons that each do one task? Is an aesthetically-pure minimalist interface really ideal if you then need to teach every new user how it works?

As with any task worth doing, there are many levels of nuance to simplification. It takes judgement; an assessment of what functions are important to your product, your app, your idea. Strip away anything extraneous and put anything the user needs front-and-centre, but don’t confuse the two or you’ll live to regret it.

This website is all about words.

The page you’re reading now went through many iterations before settling on the look you see today. Early drafts were swamped with full-page background images and clever CSS3 animation effects, but no matter how fancy I got with the coding these early designs never felt quite right. Then I stumbled upon Justin Jackson’s inspired ‘This Is A Web Page’ article and was reminded that what was important for this site was the words themselves. It goes deeper than that, even: what’s important to this site is the content. It could be read aloud by a screen-reader, translated into sign-language, even transmitted telepathically for all I care. As long as the message can be absorbed, this page will have done its job.

What I was doing with my early designs was trying to build a ‘great website’, when what I should really have been focusing on was building a great content delivery system. It seems video is the de rigueur medium for getting messages across quickly, and for a while I did toy with the idea of making this page into a vlog, but ultimately words are purer. Video is harder to create than written content, and would skew the message with all the baggage brought along by seeing my face (beautiful) or hearing my accent (perfectly inflected Queen’s English). With the written word I have more chance of capturing the ‘white heat of inspiration’ and of being able to communicate my thoughts clearly.

Why use any styling at all?

So why not go all-out and strip out all the styling from this page completely? Properly written semantic HTML is nothing but content, so surely stripping away everything else would be the most efficient way to get the message across? Well, quite frankly, the default styling applied by web browsers is ugly, and that’s not as shallow a complaint as you might think. Concepts like line-height, line-length, leading & kerning each have a huge impact on the readability of text. To trust all those to the random whims of a browser is madness.

It’s often said that we read best what we read most, and my what my friends and I read most are books. Books are fantastically efficient, and the best ones are things of beauty that wrap their content in a nourishing blanket of aesthetic proportions and finely-wrought typefaces. Given how many books I own solely on the topic of type design and typography, I can’t stand idly by and leave my content at the mercy of the ‘web-safe’ default fonts. I have to believe that good typography and good design makes the reading experience better.

Simple doesn’t have to be ugly.

It seems obvious, but websites still have a lot to learn from books. Just because we can swamp everything in technical wizardry doesn’t mean we should, but it equally doesn’t mean we should abandon design altogether. ‘Simple’ doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean ‘ugly’, and the simple act of thinking about line-lengths and visual hierarchies can turn an indigestible splurge of HTML into something readable, and in the right hands even something beautiful.

Finding the right balance between visual simplicity, simplicity of interaction and a pleasing aesthetic is a real challenge, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve still a long way to go. But at least now I’m pointing in the right direction; simple is important, simple is necessary, and simple is really hard.