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Sunday, 22 April 2007

'Simplicity' in web design


When Google came along the first reaction of most people was to the design. 'Clean', 'uncluttered' — 'simple' was the dominant first take.

But we generally don't want any of this in a product, especially one we tell others about.

As Don Norman, points out:
"I also know that companies have to make money, which means they have to deliver the products that their customers want, not the products they believe they should want. And the truth is, simplicity does not sell."
Gerry McGovern discusses on his blog why we buy complexity even when the simple option would be better? And how does this false dichotomy relate to websites?
  • We do judge a book by its cover; we do think beauty is skin deep. If something looks complicated, then we immediately assume that it must be powerful; must have greater value.
  • We love to show off. Complexity is like the peacock's feathers. It is brash and impossible to miss. Complexity lets other people know how clever we are and how rich, because we can afford such complexity.
  • We might not need all these fancy features right now, but there might be some time in the future when we will. Buying complexity insures us against future need.
But
  • None of the above conditions operate on a website.
Because
  • We don't pay for visiting a website with our money; we pay for it with our time .. there is a strong motivation to spend as little time as possible.
  • Websites are about the present, not the future. Investing in a product is about predicting all the future uses we may have for it. Visiting a website is about now.
  • We like websites that resemble websites we're used to visiting, because they are more familiar and easier to navigate.
  • When we go to Google we are usually alone. We search for cheap flights, but we certainly don't go around advertising that we're cheap.
Our web behavior is:
  • Relentlessly simple and hugely impatient.
  • We use the Web during the ad breaks for The Daily Show.
  • We simply don't have time to waste on complex navigation, convoluted language, or the vanity publishing of navel-gazing organizations.

This is Nielsen's “F” pattern:
Users had more fixations at the beginning of a line than the end of a line, and also the fixations were more for the first few lines than for subsequent lines.

However, as the Poynter Institute just found, studying news websites, if you grab people and get their attention they will read your copy.
Readers select stories of particular interest and then read them thoroughly. Nearly two-thirds of online readers, once they chose a particular item to read, read all the text.
They labelled this, The Myth of Short Attention Span.

Discussing the Report on American Public Radio's Marketplace Alan Jacobson of Brass Tacks Design underlined this point:
For instance, if you had a 2,000-inch story about Princess Diana, any Anglophile will read every column inch of that story regardless of the format. I worked with an editor once who told me, "Alan, they will read it if we print it on a paper bag, if they care about it."
How do you grab attention?
Research subjects also were quizzed about what they learned from a story, revealing that readers could answer more questions about a story when it included “alternative story forms,” such as
  • Q&A’s,
  • timelines,
  • graphics,
  • short sidebars, and
  • lists.
Webwrights will see this in their logs - an audience who spend a lot of time on your site.

This is important as the take-away around simplicity is often just that - give them nothing else.

As Poynter underlines, people want to search and scan websites for the content nugget they want quickly. But once they've found it, they want everything you've got - all the detail, including the shipping costs.

They want longer pieces, if it's useful (which it often is).

If you behave like some websites - Virgin's new website say (I'm a customer) - and only give them the nuggets and hide the depth - you fall back into a user's judgement that beauty is skin deep.
If something looks complicated, then we immediately assume that it must be powerful; must have greater value.
Portraying the complexity behind the simplicity is the real key in web design.

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