19 May 2021
Balancing Complexity and Simplicity in the Digital Space
We know how frustrating it can be when you stumble almost every time before finding a solution to a complex design problem. To be honest, we’ve had our fair share of problems and the feeling that came with all those problems of being not good enough accumulated into the instinctive experience that we as a team have today. As novice designers, simplicity and complexity were opposites for us, which they are but when designing solutions we learned that you actually have to balance these alternates.
Our perception towards a lot of things has changed over the years and now when we look back we can recall all the wrong steps we’ve taken before taking the right ones, it sure seems as if the wrong ones outweigh the right ones to an exponential degree.
However, we feel as though those wrong steps were the ones which allowed us to learn the most, because knowing what not to do was more of a blessing then knowing what to do. Knowing what to do limited our imagination and creativity whereas, knowing what not to do gave us a set of rules and principles which served as a guide for the things we should avoid while designing. The rest was our playground and we could be as creative and imaginative as possible.
We used to believe that complex problems require complex solutions, little did we know back then that designing a complex interface solution was like putting out fire with fire. However, according to Tesler’s Law, also known as The Law of Conservation of Complexity, states that
“for any system there is a certain amount of complexity which cannot be reduced”
Complex problems usually do require complex solutions however, they should not seem complex to the user because a complex UI, in general, is more than enough reason for many people to abandon a website or mobile app. People don’t like things that aren’t easily understandable. It doesn’t matter how amazing your website is or how functionally relevant it is, if the usability of your website drives your users crazy then you can expect large amounts of costly user churn in return.
Simple UI Solutions:
As designers it is our job to limit the cognitive strain of our users and ensure that users don’t catch a glimpse of the complexity of our product. When designing the frontend of our product it is important to present a simple and intuitive interface to our users, which does not only look simple but acts simple too.
Don’t get us wrong here, by no means do we imply that a simple website is an under designed one, by simple we only mean that it is easy to use and understand for our users. For example, take a car, how would you feel if driving a car were as complex as flying an airplane. If you had to individually control all the electrical systems in your car before you could start driving, it wouldn’t take long for you to sell that car and buy a new one. Same goes for a website, if our users find our website to be overtly complex, they would get confused and frustrated and would eventually stop using our website. So in order to retain our users to keep on using our product it is necessary to present them with a beautiful looking product that doesn’t seem complex, is simple to use and understand, and has all the features necessary to get the job done.
Know your Users’ Desire
In order to build a product that lets users achieve their goals, we need to look at things from their perspective, we need to put ourselves in their shoes. What may seem as a simple solution for us may very well be complicated for our users to understand. If we lose sight of our users’ goals and desires we may end up presenting a UI that prioritizes our goals and priorities which would ultimately allow the complexities of the backend to shine through to the frontend. Before we do anything, it is necessary for us to understand what our users want to accomplish as well as how they expect it to happen. Sometimes users expect for certain actions to be standard. Here, both functionally and placement of components matter. E.g take the login component, it is usually placed at the top right corner of most websites. If this component were to be placed anywhere else it would cause confusion for the user and they would find it hard to navigate to the login page.
Secondly if we were to place a button which didn’t have the right formatting of a hover or focus state or had a different shaded outline then the same problem would pertain, as our users wouldn’t even consider it as a button. So it is essential that we don’t lose sight of our users’ goals and expectations, because if we’re not designing a UI that’s in line with our users’ goals and their preferences, then we’re likely to reveal some of the complexity happening behind the scenes.
Make Your Interface Easy to Learn
Harvard psychologist George Miller suggests that people can only hold 5 to 9 things in their short term memory with any recollection. It is only logical to say that the simpler something is, the easier it is to learn hence easier to use.
As said earlier our priority as designers is to present a product that is simple for our users to use and learn. They should easily be able to use our interface effectively and efficiently, which is only possible when we limit the number of things they have to learn. Now it is not completely necessary for us to make a simple website altogether, we can add a little bit of complexity for our more advanced users, however it is important to build this on a secondary interface.
Take Microsoft Word for example, many users around the globe use it for creating documents, Word is a powerful software which can be used to create more than simple documents, however most users generally don’t use Word to its full capabilities and they don’t even use the variety of options available. Rather what they do is simply use the options they know and understand. When we look at the interface of Word we see that the basic options are available on the first page when we open Word, the more complex options are tucked in different menu options.
The reason why the Microsoft team has done this is because they understand that not all users will be using Word for it’s full capabilities and the reason why they’ve hid the more complex options in separate menus is to avoid scaring off the not so advanced users. This concept is called progressive disclosure where you tuck away the advanced features in a secondary interface. So, it is important to ensure that our product not only looks and appears simple to use but acts that way too.
We prefer things that are simple to use and remember, what may appear to be simple to us may not necessarily be simple for our users’ so next time you're stuck having to solve a complex design problem, be sure to first put yourself in your users’ shoes before you start coming up with design solutions.