Why Simplicity Is Essential To Web Design
A simple website charges you less time. A complex website charges you more time. Time is your most precious resource.
Simplicity is highly overrated, according to Donald Norman, a design thinker I very much admire. "I'm a champion of elegance, simplicity, and ease of use," Norman writes. "But, as a business person, I also know that companies have to make money, which means they have to deliver the products that their customers want, not the products they believe they should want. And the truth is, simplicity does not sell."
So why do we buy complexity even when the simple option would be better? Three reasons. Firstly, because we do judge a book by its cover; we do think beauty is skin deep. If something looks complicated, then we immediately assume that it must be powerful; must have greater value.
Secondly, we love to show off. Complexity is like the peacock's feathers. It is brash and impossible to miss. Complexity lets other people know how clever we are and how rich, because we can afford such complexity.
Thirdly, buying complexity is like buying insurance. We might not need all these fancy features right now, but there might be some time in the future when we will. Buying complexity insures us against future need.
"When users choose a feature-laden product, they may not be exhibiting a desire for complexity," Joshua Porter writes in his very interesting article, Simplicity: The Ultimate Sophistication. "Instead, users are anxious about predicting their future needs."
None of the above conditions operate on a website for the following reasons. First, we don't pay for visiting a website with our money; we pay for it with our time. The longer we spend on a website the more we pay, so there is a strong motivation to spend as little time as possible.
Second, websites are about the present, not the future. Investing in a product is about predicting all the future uses we may have for it. Visiting a website is about now. We have a particular need and we visit the website to meet that particular need.
Website behavior is not about insuring against future conditions but rather about reaping the benefits of past actions. In other words, we like websites that resemble websites we're used to visiting, because they are more familiar and easier to navigate.
Third, we can't wear a website, drive around in it or show it off at a party. Browsing a website is essentially private behavior. When we go to Google we are usually alone. We search for cheap flights, but we certainly don't go around advertising that we're cheap.
If people loved complexity on the Web, then everyone would be using Advanced Search. We'd all be going to the 10th page of search results instead of clicking on one of the first three results on the first page.
We may still end up buying complex products on the Web, but our web behavior will remain relentlessly simple and hugely impatient. We use the Web during the ad breaks for Desperate Housewives. We simply don't have time to waste on complex navigation, convoluted language, or the vanity publishing of navel-gazing organizations.
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