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Simplicity: The Cobbles of the Designer's Path

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In: Columns > DigiSect

By Stephen Van Doren

Published on June 14, 2001

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Out of clutter, find simplicity.

From discord, find harmony.

- Albert Einstein

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In the web world, we talk about simplicity all the time. The fact of the matter is that people don't want to be confused by the Web.

Why is that so important to remember?

Simply put, many of us on the Web come from print backgrounds. One of the most important things to remember when coming to the Web is that it's not anything like a physical piece of paper. You want to have control over all your elements, of course, but you also want to create a stimulating presentation.

Consider a highly regarded site... 37Signals is a beautiful site, both in form and in function, but it's not something we'd like to see in a magazine.

We love magazines that are full of color, richness, action and movement. The web, unlike a magazine, is an interactive medium. We don't want to confuse visitors, because if we do they will simply go to another site that has similar (and possibly inferior) content with structure and interface that they understand.

In the meantime, we dare not forget our audience. For example, Josh Davis isn't going to make Praystation for his grandmother.

So you have to ask yourself a few questions before you begin the development of a website. The most important is about your audience. To maintain clarity and simplicity, your audience has to understand it. If there was only one "type" of web user, the answer to the Audience Question would be an easy one... but the fact of the matter is that there are countless audiences on the web.

Without knowledge of your audience, you cannot design for simplicity. Likewise, when you know who is going to be looking at your work, you can form a good idea of how to present it. That's universal. It cannot be stressed enough in any design practice, whether on paper or on the web.

Bear in mind this simple rule: X to the power of two minus five over seven point three eight times nineteen is approximately equal to the cubed root of MCC squared and divided by X minus a quarter of a third percent. With that in mind, you simply can't go wrong.

Or so says the Information Architect.

Away from the poor examples of failed e-tailers

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Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event.

- Oscar Wilde

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One assumes that since you're visiting digital-web.com, you've created a website, at some point or another, that was built to sell something to someone else, whether a book, some other physical item, or an idea. One assumes that you've learned people are only going to sit through something once as they try to purchase something.

With the advent of e-commerce, fueled by a torrent of venture capital (that wasn't bottomless, as the recession showed us), the Web underwent a great change. I'm not going to pass judgement and say that this change was good or bad, but I will say that many sites did nothing to create a simple Web.

There are countless sites that present excellent design. There are even more sites that are full of un-interesting, useless crap. Without a healthy dose of foresight, your site may be one of the latter before it ever launches.

How, then, do you ensure that your audience becomes wrapped up in your content?

You must create what we call a "sticky" website. The essence of this concept is that you need to avoid clutter.

People should be able to find what they want on your site on their first visit. Huge load times, superfluous images, and confusing navigation will only help to drive them away.

That brings us to an inevitable conclusion: Useful Navigation + Useful Content = Repeat Visits. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Your content can be great, and that's a great start. But you've got to omit needless stuff - elements, words, pictures, and links all need to serve some purpose. When something becomes too difficult to navigate through because of its "clutter," as though you were sifting through the great tomes of knowledge in the Library of Alexandria without a logical approach to finding the information contained therein, you're going to get frustrated and leave. It's that... simple.

Organization: the better to find it with

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I have deep faith that the principle of the universe will be beautiful and simple.

- Albert Einstein

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When I look out at the web these days, I have to doubt the sanity of some developers. There exist many, many commerce-driven sites that are, simply put, impossible for the average user.

There's no need to show statistics, because 37Signals provides those.

The bottom line is this: If the site doesn't work, it doesn't work. If that doesn't make sense, you're in the wrong business.

The path away from disaster passes through self-negation: when a site is designed using simplicity as the cornerstone, the designer has to sacrifice some of his/her ego.

Come on, admit it. While you spend a great deal of time creating sites that work and are pleasing to the eye, many of you would rather see it look pretty and not have any function.

Putting aside that desire for beauty and bringing function to the front of the queue is a difficult challenge for any graphic designer to partake. I trust you can do it, though.

Fundamentally we're all looking for the simple answers, anyway. If you're having trouble making your projects simple, yet elegant and beautiful, first limit the amount of code you put in.

Simplicity isn't expressed solely through the presentation, of course. Simplicity exists in the design, the site architecture, the code, and the interface. A truly easy-to-use website will incorporate all of those functions into one site, and it will be one that is frequented, over and over.

Of all the wonderful sites in existence today, there are few that stand out, gently whispering "simplicity" to me, like NetDiver.

We can talk, talk, talk about NetDiver, but until you experience it for yourself, you'll never get it.

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UNIX is simple. It just takes a genius to understand its simplicity.

- Dennis Ritchie, UNIX co-creator

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If you've already experienced it, I need to ask: Isn't it wonderful? The architecture is exactly the same, no matter where you are. The navigation is in the same place, and the content is in the same place, no matter how deep you're "drilling."

Of course, like any media portal, NetDiver has a wealth of information, links, and images to display. I believe that Carole has done an excellent job to ensure that the body of knowledge on the site is organized in a manner that anyone in the intended audience can understand.

It's amazing how something as simple as organization can make your site into something that people will use, over and over again.

When I think of the concept of simplicity, I'm reminded of the Web as it was five or six years ago. I don't recall the Web as some sort of chauvinist regime of developers who were unwilling to let go. I saw a great wealth of knowledge being shared over great distances by a great many people.

Do you see a trend? It's still continuing, but something changed.

Designers changed the rules.

Designers appeared from nowhere and decided that they ran the show. Well, that worked for a while, but when Boo.com went away, we all took a long, hard look at ourselves.

We realized that Stone Images is still in existence... because it made sense to anyone that needed access to their photography. It wasn't an artsy site, it wasn't a graphically-intense site... it was just a site that used the space of the screen properly, and displayed everything in a manner than everyone understood.

That's simple enough, don't you think?

Taking out the garbage

Here's an interesting exercise when developing something for the Web:

I use this frequently. First I create several designs for the site, which are variations on a theme. Of the seven or eight that I will create for a typical project, I'll take the three that are my favorites and set them in front of me.

At that point, I'll take out my huge black marker and start removing things, considering if the design will be functional without them. If the design does remain functional, I usually keep the design.

When you look at it inversely, you'd be surprised how much extra garbage we (or our cilents) put into our designs. However, we can fault no one but ourselves for unnecessary complexity - complexity which drives site visitors away, and ultimately hurts our clients. On the Web, simplicity is the hallmark of the professional.

Perhaps it's time we started acting like professionals.

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Related Topics: Web Design, Keep It Simple (KISS)

 

Stephen Van Doren is a software developer and graphic designer from Denver, Colorado.

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