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It Posted Jun 25, 2009, 3:01 pm CT

It's Up to the User to Define Simplicity

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One of the interesting presentations at the 2009 Usability Professionals’ Association Conference was “Secrets of Simplicity ” presented by Giles Colborne.  During this presentation, Giles posited that a key component of usability is simplicity and presented guidelines for creating simple designs.  At Centralis, we believe guidelines are great as a starting point when creating a design, but ultimately it’s the user who determines if a device is simple to use.

During Giles’ presentation he examined what makes designs simple and provided four simplicity guidelines: 

  • Remove features – Remove features that are not needed; keep only functionality deemed necessary by the user
  • Hide features – Hide functionality that is not essential to core usage; ensure those who may want less-used features can find them easily
  • Group features – Group features in ways that logically make sense and match the user’s mental model
  • Displace features – Move functionality from one device to another or create designs that allow users to be flexible in how they choose to use features of the tool (Giles’ refers to this as displacing functionality “to the users’ head”)
These design guidelines provide a good starting point for achieving a simple design.  However sometimes in an effort to achieve simplicity, a product can become more difficult to use.  Here are some examples:
  • Remove features: Missing functionality on Inter-Tel handset phones – Inter-Tel phones have both traditional corded phones and wireless handset phones that are designed to work in an office.  On the handset interface the buttons for some key office functions, such as hold and mute, have been removed.  These buttons probably have been eliminated to make the handset more usable, but this actually makes these phones more difficult to use.  For example, to put a person on hold a button with two labels (“Talk” and “Flash”) needs to be pressed.  The mapping of this functionality to this button is not intuitive and how to put a call on hold has to be learned from the manual.  Because of this attempt at “simplification”, the corded phone that has a separate hold button may be the preferred version of this device for many users.
  • Hide features: Dynamic menus in Microsoft Office 2003 – In an effort to achieve a simplified user interface, Microsoft designed expandable menus for Word, Excel and other Office 2003 applications to display only the most frequently used items by default.  This feature hides seldom used functionality from the user and changes the location of menu items as different options are used.  This “simplistic” design can actually make these menus more difficult to use.  Some users who rely on the position of an item in a menu may find it harder to locate moving labels in menus.  Users may also find it hard to find less-used features hidden in the menus.  Interestingly, Microsoft dropped this menu design from subsequent versions of Office.
  • Group features: Location of contacts on the initial iPhone interface – The initial release of the iPhone embedded contacts within the Phone application rather than providing access to contacts from the home screen.  This location made the functionality of contacts limited and less usable for users who wanted to use contact information for email and text too.  Later releases of the iPhone software contain a separate Contacts application with information that could be used in all of the supported contexts (such as phone, text, and email.)
  • Displace features: Initial usage of Twitter as a “tool” – Twitter is undoubtedly one of the interfaces du jour and tons of hype surrounds the use and popularity of this website.  Twitter is a simple microblogging and social networking tool with a sparse interface that allows users to use the application as they see fit (in Giles’ terms, much of the functionality is in the user’s head.)  However, for the novice user this simplicity can make the tool difficult to use.  Conventions of use that have developed over time (such as “RT”, “@” and “#”) are not clearly explained for the new user.  In addition, there is no clear design metaphor (such as instant messaging or email) for the user to lean on to help them quickly learn the application.  Many users who are motivated to learn Twitter are forced to spend time searching for information and learning how to format Tweets correctly before recognizing the benefit of the website.
These challenges presented by creating simple designs emphasize that guidelines can only take you so far when it comes to usability.  Although Giles alluded to the necessity of obtaining input from users, we believe he may have undersold its importance.  Getting user feedback on a design is crucial to ensure that a simple design is indeed simple to use.


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Jun 26, 2009, 6:59 am CT

From Giles Colborne:
Thanks, Amy - some great examples of 'simple' things that aren't so simple after all.
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