A natural constraint to any design engagement is striking the balance between simplicity and clarity. On one end of the spectrum, if the design is too simple, we lose clarity, making it unusable. On the other end of the spectrum, if the design focuses too much on clarity we sacrifice simplicity, decreasing usability.
Good design finds the optimal balance between simplicity and clarity, resulting in elegance.
Familiarity determines where on this spectrum we should design. As users become more familiar with the metaphors, language and interactions of technology/products/services they demand a simpler interface. Conversely, when users are new to the technology/product/service they demand more clarity. This, of course, means we’re designing for a moving target.
Take, for example, the journey society has taken with Facebook. In order to connect with someone during the early days of Facebook we would start the conversation with something like this:
Have you ever heard of Facebook?
Do you have a Facebook account?
No? Well you should.
When you go to facebook.com you can sign up.
After you sign up, you should search for my name.
If you’re able to find me in the search results you should add me to your friends list.
New users to Facebook demanded this level of clarity because they were unfamiliar with the idea of connecting with others online.
Now consider this: Facebook me. We all know what that means! The process is much simpler, but just as clear because we’ve grown in familiarity with Facebook and understand its language.
Mobile applications often take a layered approach to helping the user understand the language and metaphors being used. Quite often this takes the form of an onboarding process that is explicit in its clarity, maybe through a tutorial or introduction sequence. Once the introductions are over, the designer relies on the user’s comprehension to simplify the interface into interactions and metaphors that might otherwise be obscure.
Over simplifying an interface requires the user to think, to use their imagination, and to guess. The less of those activities, the better.
The danger that many designers face is that when we first create, we create at the ideal intersection of simplicity and clarity. We fall in love with our creation, and as familiarity grows, we’re not willing to recognize that our creation isn’t as relevant as it was when we first created it.
As designers, we must keep our ear to the ground, listening to the way our users interact with the things we create. Simplicity IS a competitive advantage.