A few years ago at the Thinking Digital Conference in Gateshead I heard Ken Segall speak on his then new book and on working with Steve Jobs and Apple. The driving thrust of his talk was about keeping things Insanely Simple. It is a thought that has stuck in my mind ever since as one of the keys to Apple’s success in the wake of Steve Jobs’ 1997 return.

In any room of people it is not difficult to reach a notional consensus that simplicity is valuable in just about any context. I have seldom engaged with a client who didn’t agree, or in fact request simplicity. Apart from Isaac Newton making his “Principia” deliberately obtuse in the hope of avoiding a deluge of questions from inferior scientists, I cannot think of another example where someone thought complexity in a thing was a good idea.

And yet, despite every effort and intention to the contrary, why is it that so many things you see online remain complex? Why is it that after background research, defining personas, mapping out key user journeys, investing in information architecture, wireframing - all those good things you should be doing - users still complain about how difficult it is to find what they are looking for on a site?

Here’s why…

Simplicity is hard!

Simplicity is particularly hard when your business does lots of different things for lots of different people. Simplicity is particularly hard when we have so much valuable information to share. Simplicity is particularly hard when we work in a creative industry and want to express ourselves.

Thankfully (or perhaps not) there are some external drivers that are forcing simplicity onto webmasters and teaching us to build better, simpler websites.

  • We know that the patience of website visitors has been dwindling over time, they are spending less time sifting through the information you have. Your window of opportunity to be useful has shortened.
  • We know that more and more people are browsing on smart devices where screen space is at a premium and huge chunky fingers are used instead of pixel perfect pointing devices.
  • We know that newer browsers, standards and frameworks are blurring the edges between apps and websites - that the “3-click rule” is a dinosaur from the hypertext mark-up era.

So what can you do to help?

Present Differently

One option could be to change your business offering. One of the first things Steve Jobs did on his return to Apple was to simplify the product range they had on offer. They went from a multitude of configurations to one laptop and one desktop, each available in a “standard” and “powerful” configuration.

Modern Western economies value the idea of choice, but with each layer of choice comes complexity – I’m not for a moment suggesting that every company should revise its product line, but every company should constantly be revisiting what choices they are expecting customers to make with regard to their products and services (and whether it is reasonable to expect them to make these). Every company should think about how they are presenting products to customers and should look to rationalise the presentation.

At the same time the importance of good data and content at every layer of engagement is a must have. Some users will want or need to drill down right into the minute detail of what you have. Others will just want the highlights and that’s good enough. A one size fits all approach probably won’t cut it.

If you are using a product like Kentico EMS and can easily identify the personas on your site, you could try to deal with this using the built in webpage personalisation features.

“Widgetise”

While most marketers and designers now recognise the gulf that exists in designing for web versus designing for print, many people still view a webpage as a thing that has to be designed in its entirety. This means that the page can have a tendency to be an inflexible canvas. While this does not necessarily help or hinder simplicity in itself, it does make it difficult and expensive to change later.

We are working more and more with the concept of the page as a flexible framework where each component on the page is designed to be a discrete piece of functionality that works well within the whole. In other words, each element of the page can be designed in isolation; a lot more like how you might design an application.

This approach of widgetisation means that there is far greater scope to tweak pages according to your needs on a shorter and cheaper timescale. It also means that you can move elements of a page around, add to the page and possibly remove from the page with much less impact on the graphical integrity of the page.

This approach can also help with your personalisation on the page if you decide to go down that route. Power users who want more information could see additional widgets on a page or even see a detail widget in place of a simple widget.

In Summary

Simple websites don’t happen by accident. The simplicity needs to be designed in from the outset and the technology needs to complement the design strategy you adopt. Regardless of how you tackle it, simplicity is not something that you can (or should) avoid.