Taming Complexity

I’m going to step into my UX trousers for this one. I wouldn’t usually wear them in public, but it’s Christmas, so there’s nothing wrong with looking silly.

Anyway, to business. Wherever I roam, I hear the familiar call for simplicity and the denouncement of complexity. I read often that the simpler something is, the more usable it will be. We understand that simple is hard to achieve, but we push for it nonetheless, convinced it will make what we build easier to use. Simple is better, right?

Well, I’ll try to explore that. Much of what follows will not be revelatory to some but, like all good lessons, I think this serves as a welcome reminder that as we live in a complex world it’s OK to sometimes reflect that complexity in the products we build.

Myths and legends

Less is more, we’ve been told, ever since master of poetic verse Robert Browning used the phrase in 1855. Well, I’ve conducted some research, and it appears he knew nothing of web design. Neither did modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a later pedlar of this worthy yet contradictory notion. Broad is narrow. Tall is short. Eggs are chips. See: anyone can come up with this stuff.

To paraphrase Einstein, simple doesn’t have to be simpler. In other words, simple doesn’t dictate that we remove the complexity. Complex doesn’t have to be confusing; it can be beautiful and elegant. On the web, complex can be necessary and powerful. A website that simplifies the lives of its users by offering them everything they need in one site or screen is powerful. For some, the greater the density of information, the more useful the site.

In our decision-making process, principles such as Occam’s razor (in a nutshell: simple is better than complex) are useful, but simple is for the user to determine through their initial impression and subsequent engagement. What appears simple to me or you might appear very complex to someone else, based on their own mental model or needs. We can aim to deliver simple, but they’ll be the judge.

As a designer, developer, content alchemist, user experience discombobulator, or whatever you call yourself, you’re often wrestling with a wealth of material, a huge number of features, and numerous objectives. In many cases, much of that stuff is extraneous, and goes in the dustbin. However, it can be just as likely that there’s a truckload of suggested features and content because it all needs to be there. Don’t be afraid of that weight.

In the right hands, less can indeed mean more, but it’s just as likely that less can very often lead to, well… less.

Complexity is powerful

Simple is the ability to offer a powerful experience without overwhelming the audience or inducing information anxiety. Giving them everything they need, without having them ferret off all over a site to get things done, is important.

It’s useful to ask throughout a site’s lifespan, “does the user have everything they need?” It’s so easy to let our designer egos get in the way and chop stuff out, reduce down to only the things we want to see. That benefits us in the short term, but compromises the audience long-term.

The trick is not to be afraid of complexity in itself, but to avoid creating the perception of complexity. Give a user a flight simulator and they’ll crash the plane or jump out. Give them everything they need and more, but make it feel simple, and you’re building a relationship, empowering people.

This can be achieved carefully with what some call gradual engagement, and often the sensible thing might be to unleash complexity in carefully orchestrated phases, initially setting manageable levels of engagement and interaction, gradually increasing the inherent power of the product and fostering an empowered community.

The design aesthetic

Here’s a familiar scenario: the client or project lead gets overexcited and skips most of the important decision-making, instead barrelling straight into a bout of creative direction Tourette’s. Visually, the design needs to be minimal, white, crisp, full of white space, have big buttons, and quite likely be “clean”. Of course, we all like our websites to be clean as that’s more hygienic.

But what do these words even mean, really? Early in a project they’re abstract distractions, unnecessary constraints. This premature narrowing forces us to think much more about throwing stuff out rather than acknowledging that what we’re building is complex, and many of the components perhaps necessary.

Simple is not a formula. It cannot be achieved just by using a white background, by throwing things away, or by breathing a bellowsful of air in between every element and having it all float around in space. Simple is not a design treatment. Simple is hard. Simple requires deep investigation, a thorough understanding of every aspect of a project, in line with the needs and expectations of the audience.

Recognizing this helps us empathize a little more with those most vocal of UX practitioners. They usually appreciate that our successes depend on a thorough understanding of the user’s mental models and expected outcomes. I personally still consider UX people to be web designers like the rest of us (mainly to wind them up), but they’re web designers that design every decision, and by putting the user experience at the heart of their process, they have a greater chance of finding simplicity in complexity. The visual design aesthetic — the façade — is only a part of that.

Divide and conquer

I’m currently working on an app that’s complex in architecture, and complex in ambition. We’ll be releasing in carefully orchestrated private phases, gradually introducing more complexity in line with the unavoidably complex nature of the objective, but my job is to design the whole, the complete system as it will be when it’s out of beta and beyond.

I’ve noticed that I’m not throwing much out; most of it needs to be there. Therefore, my responsibility is to consider interesting and appropriate methods of navigation and bring everything together logically.

I’m using things like smart defaults, graphical timelines and colour keys to make sense of the complexity, techniques that are sympathetic to the content. They act as familiar points of navigation and reference, yet are malleable enough to change subtly to remain relevant to the information they connect. It’s really OK to have a lot of stuff, so long as we make each component work smartly.

It’s a divide and conquer approach. By finding simplicity and logic in each content bucket, I’ve made more sense of the whole, allowing me to create key layouts where most of the simplified buckets are collated and sometimes combined, providing everything the user needs and expects in the appropriate places.

I’m also making sure I don’t reduce the app’s power. I need to reflect the scale of opportunity, and provide access to or knowledge of the more advanced tools and features for everyone: a window into what they can do and how they can help. I know it’s the minority who will be actively building the content, but the power is in providing those opportunities for all.

Much of this will be familiar to the responsible practitioners who build websites for government, local authorities, utility companies, newspapers, magazines, banking, and we-sell-everything-ever-made online shops. Across the web, there are sites and tools that thrive on complexity.

Alas, the majority of such sites have done little to make navigation intuitive, or empower audiences. Where we can make a difference is by striving to make our UIs feel simple, look wonderful, not intimidating — even if they’re mind-meltingly complex behind that façade.

Embrace, empathize and tame

So, there are loads of ways to exploit complexity, and make it seem simple. I’ve hinted at some methods above, and we’ve already looked at gradual engagement as a way to make sense of complexity, so that’s a big thumbs-up for a release cycle that increases audience power.

Prior to each and every release, it’s also useful to rest on the finished thing for a while and use it yourself, even if you’re itching to release. ‘Ready’ often isn’t, and ‘finished’ never is, and the more time you spend browsing around the sites you build, the more you learn what to question, where to add, or subtract. It’s definitely worth building in some contingency time for sitting on your work, so to speak.

One thing I always do is squint at my layouts. By squinting, I get a sort of abstract idea of the overall composition, and general feel for the thing. It makes my face look stupid, but helps me see how various buckets fit together, and how simple or complex the site feels overall.

I mentioned the need to put our design egos to one side and not throw out anything useful, and I think that’s vital. I’m a big believer in economy, reduction, and removing the extraneous, but I’m usually referring to decoration, bells and whistles, and fluff. I wouldn’t ever advocate the complete removal of powerful content from a project roadmap.

Above all, don’t fear complexity. Embrace and tame it. Work hard to empathize with audience needs, and you can create elegant, playful, risky, surprising, emotive, delightful, and ultimately simple things.

About the author

Simon Collison is a designer, author and speaker with a decade of experience at the sharp end. He co-founded Erskine Design back in 2006, but left in early 2010 to pursue new and exciting challenges, including writing an ambitious new book, and organising the New Adventures in Web Design event. Simon has lived in London and Reykjavik, but now lives back in his hometown of Nottingham, where he is owned by a cat.

Photo: Lachlan Hardy

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