Software designers repeatedly face the challenge to make their products usable. One important and often overlooked principle is to make their products simple, which is harder than you might envision.
A simple software application is easier to learn. It makes the software user feel in control, reduces uncertainty while making their actions more deliberate, and efficiently accomplishes tasks. Simple software applications are, in my opinion, also more pleasurable to use.
Complex software applications are harder to learn and usually get more complex, making it increasingly difficult for mainstream users to differentiate between the core features (most used) and the peripheral ones (less used). Experienced users are often surprised to discover newer, more efficient features (several versions after their introduction into the application), because the older variant of the feature that they use daily, co-exists with the new one.
If simplicity isn’t considered as a key component of the design process, then software applications become increasingly complex as more features get added. We’re really good at adding new features but not so good at eliminating or retiring stuff.
Giles Colborne has thought a lot on the issue of simplicity as it relates to usability and proposes four basic strategies for designing for simplicity in his book, Simple and Usable.
- Remove – Eliminate unnecessary or obsolete features entirely from the interface so the essentials that are core to your target audience remain. This isn’t an easy task, and will often be met with resistance both with your customers and internally with a variety of stakeholders. However, if you track feature usage in your application automatically, you’ll hopefully have a set of data analytics that can aid in making the business decision for a feature’s removal less emotional and more objective.
- Organize – Arrange items into manageable groupings or “chunks”. This effectively puts multiple related items into categories thereby reducing the number of things a customer has to view or remember at any time. Items can be organized by related purpose, hierarchy, layers, colors, size, location, alphabetically etc. Organize is a frequently used strategy to make software applications simpler and easier to use.
- Hide – Place features out of immediate view but still make them easily accessible. Features that are used infrequently are often good candidates for being hidden. For example, preferences are something that can usually be hidden since they are used so infrequently. Features can also be designed to progressively disclose more controls to further extend a simple feature so it suits the needs of expert users.
- Displace – Move features to another location entirely. In his book, Colborne uses the DVD remote control as an example, whereby instead of having many “hard” buttons on the remote, it displaces these features to “soft controls” on a menu on the TV screen, simplifying the remote as a result.
Displacing may involve moving some complex features from a mobile device to the cloud, thereby reducing the complexity of the mobile application and take advantage of the strengths and power inherent to the cloud. Displacement can also involve combining related features into one general tool. For example, a tool that combines move, rotate, and scale capabilities would be efficient in a 3D software application since those operations are often done in conjunction with each other.
Which of these four strategies could be employed to simplify this toolbox mockup?
One solution groups and hides tools. The icons displayed below the dashed line indicate hidden tools accessed from a drop-down list containing other similar tools for that category.
The strategies that were used:
- Organization - Icons were grouped into six main categories: File management, drawing, graphing, view management, image rotation, and locking.
- Organization – A default icon from each grouping was chosen to represent each category based on what a typical software user might require.
- Hide - A small triangle graphic was added to the lower-right corner of each icon position to indicate that additional hidden tools are available. This is a common convention that many existing applications employ.
- Remove or Displace - The gear cog icon was removed entirely. The preferences it represents are accessed by incorporating the preferences in each tool or by displacing the preferences feature to a suitable menu/location within the user interface.
Simple products have repeatedly been proven to have a profound impact in the market place. It’s our job as designers to make a case for making products more usable and simpler whenever and wherever possible.
Practice Giles Colborne’s strategies by simplifying another of his examples.