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Do Simple Designs Ensure Usability?


If ever a mantra has been drilled into the heads of designers, the initialism “K.I.S.S.” is the most common of all. Whether you take it to mean “Keep It Simple, Stupid”, “Keep It Short and Simple”, or “Keep It Simple and Straightforward”, the operative word is always simple. Because of this, many people tend to believe things are at their best when they are simple. But do simple designs really ensure usability? Or, asked differently ¬– Is simplicity really the best way to ensure easy operation?

Things Can Be Too Simple

Reduced to its barest essence, something can be so simple it’s ineffective. Logos are a great example. The ideal logo is distinctive, readily discernable and memorable. Simplicity is also a key component, but if you use a free logo creator to generate the simplest symbol possible for your business you risk it not working at all.

Think about it, what’s simpler than a period (.)? But a period doesn’t say anything at all without context.

Now consider a product page on an ecommerce site. In the interest of keeping things simple, the designer decides to place a single “Buy Now” button at the top of the page. Reducing clutter on the page, this keeps the design clean. However, it also means a customer would have to scroll back to the top of the page after reading the description to make a purchase.

In this case, simplicity hampers usability.

Functionality Is Fundamental

In the rush to simplify, it’s important to keep functionality in mind, particularly in mobile design. Because mobile screens offer less space than desktop pages, designers have to make decisions about what to keep and what to let go when optimizing a page for a mobile screen.

This can predicate the loss of key functionalities if careful consideration isn’t given to the user experience. Thus, it’s important to bear in mind another common mantra: “Form follows function.” Said succinctly, simple is a desirable attribute—as long as functionality is kept in mind.

Simplicity must be balanced against usability.

Superior Design Accomplishes Both

Truly gifted designers seamlessly blend simplicity with usability to maximize functionality. In his book, The Laws of Simplicity, designer and technologist John Maeda wrote, “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.” In other words, the best way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

When designing a page for an ecommerce site it’s important to keep in mind what you want the user to do. In ecommerce, that goal is typically to get the shopper to make a purchase. Therefore, your goal should be to ensure that— while as simple as possible—the page (or the screen) provides everything a user needs to get one step closer to buying your product,

Simplicity as a Tool

The best designers know simplicity is a tool, rather than a goal. In other words, It’s OK to introduce complexity to a design—as long as it serves the primary purpose. Still, you must be careful to do so in a way that doesn’t confound the user, which means you have to keep the nature of your user in mind. You can add whatever you need to add to give the shopper what they need to buy as long as your addition doesn’t diminish functionality for your ideal user.

So, no, simple designs do not always ensure usability. However, objects can be both simple and usable, as long as functionality remains the primary objective.


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