Maintaining Simplicity

Stephen Hay is a designer from the US living in the Netherlands. He is the author of “Responsive Design Workflow” a book about prototyping and content-first design.

In 2014, in a talk at beyond tellerrand he addressed how user experience on websites is very often undermined by pointless complexity. But keeping things simple is not that easy. Why do websites always get so complex?

A “Rube Goldberg machine”: the Self-Operating Napkin. Source: Rube Goldberg — Wikipedia

First, think of the process of going from A to B: you want it to be as simple as possible right? Think about everyday actions, like using a napkin: pretty simple right? But in the websites, this process of getting from A to B gets often so complex, stuck between the UI and technical implementation. We build websites as if they were a Rube Goldberg machine, adding heavy amounts of complexity to inherently simple things. As a designer with some knowledge in web development, I couldn’t agree more when Stephen said:

Not being able to do something in a particular browser is not a browser problem.
It’s a design problem.

When developing what I like calling “simple websites” (they are not really simple, sometimes) I often get stuck into some technical issues. After trying to find my way around the problem, many times I found out that I was just overcomplicating things, realizing that my 200 lines of CSS could become 40, and make the web page work flawlessly across any device, from a TV to a Blackberry phone.

During the past few years, I have been liking more and more simple websites, but actually, I never realized there is a huge difference between simple and simple-looking. Using and hamburger icon for the menu is simple-looking, but sometimes writing a menu is simpler for some people that don’t understand what the icon means: a minimal design does not mean simple.

Often we start with too much, thinking first about the tech things before the design and the user needs. This happens mostly because of design and client baggage, as well as competitor patterns and conventional wisdom “everyone does it like this”. I would add, in my experience clients want things fast, and so using pre-made layouts and adapting them by changing, removing and adding stuff without a precise plan built before, often ends up in a website that works, but is not the best, and usually expires in 4–5 years because of new needs, plugins getting deprecated, realizing that the site… is too complicated. This literally happened to me with a client the other day, telling me they would like to remake the website because it’s more complicated than it has to be.

During the talk, the first web page is taken as an example for a simple website — another great example I know is the Motherfucking Website. It’s simple, fast, won’t ever break, anyone can understand it, … it could be boring, but it gets its job done, just like the very first web page.

One of my main takeaways is from the talk is: start from nothing. Looking at simplicity, not as a matter of removing the unnecessary, but approaching it thinking not to add the unnecessary in the first place. Make it simple for anyone that will use your system, but not too easy — like the amazon “buy now button” — and don’t get creepy, by looking up the users’ data and suggesting things like google does, without explicitly asking you if you want that.

So, next time we start from scratch. And keep things really simple. Deal?

Stephen Hay talk at beyond tellerrand 2014

This blog post was born out of the Digital Publication Platforms course taught by Eric Eggert, where I learned more about web works from a new perspective and valuable information about making content accessible. The course is part of the MA programme in Content Strategy at FH Joanneum I am currently enrolled in, and here’s a story about how I ended up doing that 🙃



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