5 from South By: The Complexity Curve…How to Design for Simplicity

March 14, 2012

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Finding a happy medium between user expectations and the designer's reality is one of the most important aspects of UX, according to David Hogue.


Steve Jobs once said that Apple doesn’t invest in market research. They invest in people who know how to make products that customers want and need. Example – the iPod. It wasn’t the first digital music player. And it wasn’t the digital music player that could do the most. Microsoft’s Zune had about 10 times the features the original iPod had. But you needed an instruction manual to use it. And people hate to read instructions. So the iPod’s intuitive design was the key factor in the product’s adoption. Simple equaled success. It usually does.

While Apple is an anomaly when it comes to product design – most companies can’t be Apple and actually need to listen to their customers – session presenter David Hogue challenged designers to keep the customer and user experience in mind when designing and testing new products and online campaigns. It’s all about balancing expectations versus reality, according to Hogue. In an ideal world, designers will be able to balance the mental model (user’s perspective) with the conceptual model (designer’s perspective) to find a blend that incorporates design best practices without causing the user too much heartburn.

“Designers are people. But we tend to think differently than the people we design for,” Hogue said.

And that’s the key. Understanding how the people you design for are thinking. Then determining why some content or features designers might find significant are actually irrelevant to the user. Hogue reminded us that the user’s concept of complexity is based on relevance. Clutter gets in the way, but so does irrelevance. To steal a line from Bono and rework it a bit, if your customers still haven’t found what they’re looking for after visiting your site or holding your product, then the user experience isn’t where it needs to be. When that happens, designers need to take the complexity on themselves and rework their concept so that no matter how complicated things get behind the scenes, the user’s experience is as seamless as possible.

Case in point: Boingo. In the past, if you wanted to pay Boingo to use their Internet services in an airport or coffee shop, you had to complete a 17-field, three-page form. Not kidding. They made it that hard to give them your money. That kind of user experience does one thing – pisses people off. That’s why Boingo finally took on the complexity from a design perspective. Now if you want to pay Boingo for Internet, it’s simple. One page and one field. Enter your credit card number and the form prompts you for a security code, billing address and you’re online.

Hogue is a psychologist and his presentation included a lot more theory on why customers and designers have different expectations when it comes to user experience. Quite a few terms that were above my head, and I’m a word guy. But no matter how complex the jargon got, the conclusion couldn’t have been any clearer…

The bottom line: designers must put people first. The audiences we strive to reach aren’t in the brainstorming sessions and concept meetings that lead to the creation of new products and services. They don’t know any of the inside baseball that always seems to impact the final design. What they do know is whether something is easy to use and does what they want it to. Simple equals success.

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