A Scenic Tour of the Online World

The Power of Simplicity in Design, Content, and Beyond

Friday, December 6th, 2013

I’ve been thinking this week about simplicity. Partly, this is because I broke my ankle and the pain of the injury aside, what I’m really dealing with is the inconvenience of being forced to simplify everthing from what I can carry from one place to another to how I go about my personal grooming. (We’ll not get into the details there …)

This isn’t all bad. There are a lot fewer distractions to life when you’re forced to spend 90% of your time with your foot elevated. I’ve been able to focus on things, both at work and at home, that too often get pushed aside by the “urgent” requests and intrusions.

Simplicity is also an interesting concept in the retail world. It is frequently rewarded – see the phenomenal success Apple has had with iPods that have all of 1 major control button. But consumers also like choice. So, as a recent article in Fast Company magazine noted, in the past an audio company would have to design and build dozens of speakers to be taken seriously by consumers.

But as online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon have grown, consumers get their choice via Amazon’s breadth of selection. That means you can compete, on a limited basis, with just one product.

This is an interesting reversal of the decades-long trend toward conglomeration. You can’t get national retailers’ attention easily with one kind of chips. You’ve got to have a whole snack line. So you take your idea as far as you can with local stores, and then get bought by Frito-Lay.

There will still be advantages to a broad product line in many industries, but online marketplaces – Amazon, Etsy, various B2B vendor markets – will make it easier to build viable businesses more simply and with sharper focus on a core set of related products.

(By the way, the article is worth a read for the look into how this firm uses Amazon comments and reviews to tailor their product line to what people are asking for.)

So that’s the micro picture (my ankle) and the macro picture in favor of simplicity. What about something in between?

In a study by Google in August of 2012, researchers found that not only will users judge websites as beautiful or not within 1/50th – 1/20th of a second, but also that “visually complex” websites are consistently rated as less beautiful than their simpler counterparts

I found this on the ConversionXL website, which gets into a lot of the science supporting this research. Cutting to the chase: simple designs that match the audience’s expectations work better. 

There are very few exceptions to this rule – news sites jump to mind as the most obvious – so nearly all of us should be looking to appeal to our audience’s expectations in as simple a manner as allows us to present our key benefits to our most important audience segments. 

Take a look at your current site. If you’re not a news organization, news aggregator, or super-hip, cutting edge design firm, the site you see staring back at you should probably be simpler than it is, both visually and in the number of calls to action you present.

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