when less is just less

The designers’ problem of less is more

For the last few months I’ve been working as part of the design team for a startup in Madrid. I’m helping redesign, amongst other things the flagship app, and it’s turning out to be quite a challenge. The question we’re asking every day is how do we keep the app as simple as possible, while making it functional and engaging?

With each iteration we iron out more and more inconsistencies, and looking back at earlier versions it’s just as well, most were UX nightmares and none too pretty. But that’s OK, it’s a process.

As designers, we constantly search for innovative ways to simplify our work. We want our designs to be efficient, functional and of course easy on the eye… we are designers.

The explosion of flat has propelled minimalism to the forefront of the design world. Keeping things simple is good, I’m a big fan of simple. A clear, intuitive interface will get the users’ vote every time… well nearly every time.

So design for users, not your peers

Sometimes we fall into the trap of designing for our peers first, and our users second. We look to our equals for a pat on the back, when we should be looking to our users for a thumbs up. Anyone designing real world products will tell you that a pretty colour scheme is the least of your worries.

Unless you’re super hipster you probably use some ugly-looking apps. Why would you do that? Design is what we do, right? We use them because function comes before design. We want our products to perform a function, and well. The fact it looks pretty is a bonus.

The invoice app I use certainly isn’t the prettiest, and it’s far from flat but it’s incredibly easy to use and it does a great job. It saves me time!

Design over function

Design over function can be seen everywhere, and nowhere takes more flack for promoting such behaviour than dribbble. It’s the ultimate UI ninja showcase. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, the issue is when it spills over into real world design. How many of those tasty looking apps are actually usable, how many would respond as you imagine they should? As a side note, how many people are still finding hidden functions in iOS7?

Function over design

As designers it’s almost easier to talk about the faux pas of function over design, than design over function. Our design senses scream “NO!!” at the sight of a poorly kerned font, however we applaud the beautiful iphone app that defies every usability law there is.

There are new designers on the block that have been born into a flat world. They see flat as design and anything that falls outside of it as wrong. The concept behind flat is that it’s a true on screen representation of a real world concept. But we’re in danger of missing the point, we’re not here to implement one graphical style or another…

We’re here to aid in the creation of services and products that help people. We help to make things a little better, a little more enjoyable,  a little more productive. How we get there is irrelevant, and while I hate to say it, UI is secondary to a solid UX and a great product. Why else would MVP’s exist if not to validate and perfect a product. The eye candy can come later.

What happened to visual clues?

Everyone is putting content first, as they should. Without content we’re designing no more than a shell for a product.

My concern is that thanks to us, the designer, content first might be failing. In a bid to minimalise our interfaces we’re taking away any point of reference from our users.

A common example is the mobile hamburger menu. It’s slowly beginning to earn its place in desktop web design (see the Uber website). What was a mobile, content first solution is now beginning to define areas outside of its intended viewport.

Surely a hamburger menu on a desktop site is a fashion statement? Is there any valid reason to hide an essential element from a user when there is space to do otherwise? You are forcing your user to

A. Look for something that he knows will be somewhere else
B. Take the long way round to performing the simplest of actions.

We’re adding doors where there needn’t be. (think back to flash pre-load pages)

Instead of content first, how about user first? What’s going to happen to all that content and great design if there’s no one there to see it. We need to look closely at our reasons for removing options. Are we really enhancing user experience or are we pandering to a new epidemic, brought on in no small part by the onslaught of flat?

Have you had any experience with a less is  less problem? Have you struggled to find innovative ways to reduce clutter and still maintain a great user experience? Let me know about your less is less woes.

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