Three secrets to simplicity

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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Wednesday, 27th February, 2013

Three secrets to simplicity

Many website owners damage their sites by continually adding features and content when they should be simplifying. In this post I reveal why that happens and how to simplify your website.

Better UX:
The estimated time to read this article is 6 minutes

In my post ‘5 options when website budgets get slashed‘ I explained that many organisations waste money adding ever more functionality and content to their sites when they should be simplifying. Unfortunately it is much easier to add content than take it away. But why is that?

The 3 lures of complexity

In ‘10 harsh truths about corporate websites‘ I outlined 3 reasons why website owners shy away from removing content…

  • A fear of missing something – By putting everything online website owners believe they are giving users easy access to everything they need to know. Unfortunately, with so much available, it is hard to find anything.
  • A fear users will not understand – Whether it is a lack of confidence in their site or their audience, many website managers feel the need to provide endless instructions to users. Unfortunately, users never read this copy.
  • A desperate desire to convince – Many website managers are desperate to sell their product or communicate their message. Text becomes bloated with sales copy that actually conveys little valuable information.

However, I think there is more to it than that. First, there is a general laziness. It is easy to leave content online. It takes effort to remove it. Second (and more importantly) there is a desire to please users. If a user asks for a feature or piece of content, we feel obliged to provide it.

3 questions that encourage simplicity

Adding functionality requested by users is not always a good idea. You need to ask 3 questions…

  • How many people are asking for it? – If only a few people request a piece of functionality, there may not be the demand to justify the time and money.
  • Who is asking for it? – If it is not being requested by your primary audience then you should probably not be building it.
  • How will it affect others? – With new functionality comes complexity. Will that functionality confuse some users? Will it distract from your main call to action?

What then do you do if your site has become overly complex? How do you achieve simplicity?

3 steps to achieving simplicity

According to ‘The Laws of Simplicity‘ there are three practical ways you can simplify anything, including your site. These are:

  • Remove elements
  • Hide elements
  • Shrink elements

Let’s look at how these steps work in practice.

1. Remove

Headscape Website

The first step to simplifying your site is removing unnecessary content. This is by far the hardest step for the reasons I have outlined above. However, it is necessary as Steve Krug explains in his book ‘Don’t Make Me Think.’ He identifies two benefits of removing content…

  • It reduces the noise level of your site
  • It makes the useful content more prominent

Removing content really does make a difference. We applied these principles to our own website at headscape.co.uk and saw a significant increase in conversions (those visitors who request a quotation for our web design services) and some amazingly positive feedback on the site itself.

In fact we took the principle so much to heart that we went from a 40+ page site down to a single page! Of course, that kind of radical approach is not for every site. However, even removing some content can make a huge difference.

2. Hide

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to remove as much as you wish. Sometimes you need to keep content to serve secondary audiences. That is where hiding content comes in.

It is important to cater for secondary users, but you do not want their content to distract or confuse your main target audience. Instead of removing their content, you can hide it deeper within your site or within the interface itself.

Menu on the Wiltshire Farm Foods website

An example of this is a recent homepage redesign we completed for Wiltshire Farm Foods. Most of their sales come from 6 categories of meals. However, they also offer a number of other categories. On their old homepage the 6 main categories were lost among the other categories. Users felt overwhelmed by choice and sales were lost.

One option would have been to reduce the number of categories to focus on the 6 big sellers. However, this would upset a sizeable secondary audience. So instead, we hid some of the categories under a show more link. This meant that their secondary users could still be served, without overwhelming the primary audience.

3. Shrink

Finally, there are occasions when content can be neither removed or hidden. This is often because the content is of critical importance to a secondary audience and needs to accessed quickly. In such cases the content can be shrunk.

Take for example University websites. Their primary audience is almost always prospective students. However, they also cater for staff and existing students. These people need quick access to intranet tools such as the institutions address book. The solution is to add a small inconspicuous link on the homepage that takes them quickly to this content. By keeping the link small (shrunk) the site serves their needs without distracting or confusing the primary audience.

A similar approach was used on the Wiltshire Farm Foods new homepage. However in this case the content was actually shrunk.

Because of the elderly demographic it was important that we provided lots of help to new users. We therefore wanted to dedicate a substantial amount of homepage real estate to meet their needs as they arrived. Our solution was this…

WFF get started guide

Unfortunately this became distracting once the users were familiar with the site. It became a usability hurdle. One solution was to remove it. However, this would make it impossible for users to refer back to if they became stuck. The next option was to hide the content elsewhere (for example in the help section). However, previous usability studies of this demographic showed they develop ‘habits’ in the way they navigate. If we moved these links that they relied upon, it could prove confusing.

Our final solution was to shrink the content. So instead of moving or removing it we simply collapsed it…

WFF get started guide, collapsed

This meant the content continued to be accessible but did not become a distraction or take up too much real estate.

Conclusion

Although the ideal scenario is to remove content, it is also possible to simplify in other ways.

This should not be mistaken as an excuse to avoid removing content. However, you could use hiding and shrinking as the first step towards removing. If these techniques do not alienate your users, then it maybe appropriate to remove that content entirely.

Whatever the case, we should all be looking for ways to improve our sites by simplifying rather than adding more and more content.

“Balance” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

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