Websites and applications should be elegant. Present what a visitor or user needs to complete tasks, and nothing more. Large numbers of happier users offset the few who demand more features.
Steve Jobs said good technology should “just work” without the need for thick manuals or forcing users to memorize strange keyboard commands. Hardware and software requiring too much effort annoy users, who then use only the obvious features.
Some complain that Apple products seem too simple and “dumbed down” for the mass market, with advanced features and options hidden from all but expert users. When features fail to appeal to a sufficient number of users, Apple removes the features.
At its simplicity-obsessed worst, Apple clung to the single-button mouse for too long. Two buttons are less complex than pressing a key while using one mouse button. I tried to use a mouse with six buttons and a scroll wheel, and found myself relying on the two main buttons. Usable designs offer practical choices and features, neither too few nor too many.
Other tech companies have adopted the same philosophy as Apple. Google has terminated services I used, such as Google Reader, that appealed to a small percentage of users. Microsoft terminated products or removed them from the core Microsoft Office suite.
I’ve personally bemoaned the loss of features more than once. But, as a developer I realize that removing code usually improves product quality. Fewer features and options results in fewer potential points of failure. It also results in less confusion for users who might be overwhelmed by complexity.
Apple’s decision to keep Mail, Contacts, Calendar and Notes as separate applications offers a contrast to Microsoft Outlook, which offers everything in one place. There are benefits to both approaches, but I appreciate Mail has one clear purpose. For a brief time, Mail included other features until usability testing revealed these features confused many people.
Some noted tech columnists argue that iTunes, like Outlook, tries to be too many things. What was a music library application now tries to organize music, movies, podcasts and more. The app is also used to manage iPhones and iPads. iTunes today is a usability nightmare that should be several different applications.
If Apple applied its standard approach to iTunes on MacOS, it would include separate applications for video content, music and podcasts. There would be another application for synchronizing content with and adjusting the setting of iOS devices. Is an audiobook a book in iBooks or audio in iTunes? Depends on if you are using a device or a computer.
Consider which applications have thrived in the market and why. Interface simplicity appeals to most users.
At one time, like many DOS users, I used WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBase to complete work. The applications used different keys for similar features. The inconsistencies were part of life with computers. I navigated by muscle memory, striking keys without conscious thought. I’m still a keyboard jockey, but I’m in the minority of software users.
WordPerfect, with its included function key guides and well-written help system, defeated the complex formatting system of WordStar. Microsoft Word came along and offered easier menus and no need to memorize function keys. The winner was the easier-to-use program.
Online, the same philosophy of simplicity wins.
Google took simplification to the extreme, with a single text field for its search engine. The directory approach of Yahoo and AltaVista presented users with long lists of topics. You had to guess where to locate some subtopics. Google presented no clutter and minimal potential for confusion. Enter a word and phrase and Google lists related websites. If you want more power, you have to select the advanced search options. Simple won, and Google dominates online search. When Google tries something complex, the company stumbles.
Facebook offers far less customization than other social media. The text appearance is what Facebook decides it should be. The colors are blue and white. When Facebook adds complicated features, those tend to go unused by the majority of members. Again, simplicity wins.
Many websites fail the simplicity test. Technology enables the creation of complex documents, websites and applications, a temptation to which many designers and programmers fall victim.
A few years ago, I designed an online community for a non-profit. The committee in charge kept adding feature requests, and I dutifully responded by adding ever more features to the site. The features appeared as menu items. Though the most-used features appeared as prominently as possible, the sheer number of menu choices and features quickly overwhelmed community members.
One solution to such complexity is to offer both a simple and an advanced interface choice, as Google does with search. Present the popular features via the interface, along with a “more…” option on some screens and menus. Unfortunately, the committee wanted all options always displayed.
We discovered members were using Facebook instead of the feature-laden, and complex online community designed for the organization. Users were posting messages and responding via the familiar, easy-to-use Facebook groups feature. The fancy online magazine, online store, forums and other features proved to be too much. What seemed like a great idea during committee meetings was a tangled mess in reality.
Organizations need to test website and application usability regularly. Find out which features users access most often and emphasize those in menus and lists. Move less frequently used choices to an advanced-options screen. Removing a cool feature used by a handful of people is not easy for some developers, but it is a good approach to quality and maintainability.
Ask users unfamiliar with a website or program to test the interface. Give them tasks to complete and watch them navigate. Discuss their experiences after tests, and listen to their comments. Involving users during the design of a new interface reveals problems and allows them to be addressed before a wider audience encounters frustration.
Offer your website visitors and application users elegance, or they will find an easier alternative.