When less is more
Today I'd like to say a few words about what isn't needed on a website, and about how leaving out some of the things that you think might be needed can actually make for a better user experience. But first, you'll need to have a look at a favourite site of mine. I've been visiting this particular site for months, and if you're at all into web development you've probably already seen it. The site is 'Today's Guardian' (or Observer, on a Sunday), created by Phil Gyford using the Guardian Open Platform. It's a brilliant example of how a great interface combined with a 'less is more' attitude to page content can result in a really great user experience.
Whoever heard of a newspaper site that didn't have a proper homepage, listing all of the main headlines? Well, it turns out that the absence of this well established feature, and an interface that makes flipping through the pages a joy, makes me want to do just that - flip from story to story until something catches my eye. There's no doubt that this is a less efficient way of 'consuming' the news, but do I really need to consume it? What about just enjoying it? Perhaps a rather disingenuous statement, but the point is that really great design makes being delighted by something as important as the efficiency of its function.
Too often both the designer/builder of a new site, not to mention the client paying for it, become consumed with the idea of cramming in as much functionality and as much information as possible. It's easy to see why: human nature tends to dictate a 'more is more' attitude in most of us, and there is the all-pervasive fear that the casual browser will become just another bounce statistic if they don't see exactly what they want as soon as the page loads. These concerns are not unfounded, and it would take a brave commercial enterprise to adopt as minimalist an approach to their site as is used on Today's Guardian.
I'm sure that on many occasions we do our users a disservice with this attitude, designing and building from a base assumption that all users are thick and impatient. However, it is an unfortunate fact of life that, much of the time, we are required to design for the lowest common denominator.
All this aside, and hopefully returning to my original premise, I am certain that there are aspects of this approach that can be applied more widely. Two of the key characteristics of a usable interface (of anything, not just a website) are that it should be easy to learn and easy to remember. The reason, I feel, that Today's Guardian succeeds as well as it does is that the control of the interface (via clicks on the left or right of the page, or using the cursor keys) makes sense on some fundamental level, even though I cannot recall encountering this kind of navigation on any other site. This, combined with the complete absence of anything else on the page that might confuse things, makes the whole thing easy to learn, and the simplicity of it makes it easy to remember.
So what can we take from this that might be applied in a more general sense? I believe that those of us designing and building for the web should:
Empathise with the potential user group, and try to think how they will think, but don't begin with the premise that they must all be dim.
Disregard any notion that information should be reachable in n clicks. Concentrate on the logic of the process. If it is obvious to users how they can get to the information or service they need, then the number of clicks involved is far less important.
- Design patterns are great, and can help make it obvious how to use a site. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep trying new ways of displaying, navigating or guiding.
- Less 'clutter' on the page makes content easier to digest, content being easier to digest makes a site easier to use, and a site being easier to use give it a better chance of being a success.
To conclude then, there are many occasions in life when more is more: cake, and the displacement of a big-block V8 are two examples that spring immediately to mind. But when it comes to website design, what we leave out may be as important as what we put in.