May 152008

Simplicity, accessibility and content should always be the main focus when you design, at least that’s what we are usually told. But are they actually only factors to consider and sometimes they can be somewhat disregarded in favour of other considerations?

Many times when discussing various aspects of graphics or software design I find that a lot of people love to deal in absolutes. They catch on to some idea that might contain a lot of truth and it becomes a mantra that should be obeyed at all times and at all costs.



Keeping it simple is certainly good advice, both when it comes to programming and design.
But this doesn’t mean that simplicity always should be the first priority.
For example if we look at desktop applications targeted at professionals a lot of audio and graphics software is very complex. You can’t just dive in to 3dsmax or Logic Audio and get immediate results. Sketchup or Reason for sure wins over the pro-end software in terms of simplicity.
But many pros or more dedicated enthusiasts do need more features than the simpler software provide and they are prepared to invest some time studying the applications to discover functionality that will speed up their work flow or improve the results.

With the web people often have little time and patience to figure out a complex interface, so many times simplicity is very important. But it’s always a balancing act, and there is not ultimate truth that the simpler the better a website is. The need for simplicity depends a lot in the target audience and intended purpose. If it is a RIA where people will come back and use it many times and are likely to be willing to spend time to overcome the complexity it can be worthwhile adding features that initially may confuse the users somewhat if they are likely to understand it and find it useful after the initial learning curve.



Something I hear very often is statements like “excluding even 1% of the visitors should be avoided”. Usually this is said when discussing using Javascript or Flash on a web page.
In many cases one can use progressive enhancement and then i think one should try to do so to avoid excluding anyone, but in some cases it’s simply not possible.

Let’s for example say that you have a e-commerce website that you are considering to implement a RIA where people can design their own product. Doing it in HTML would mean a really tedious process of typing in values in fields and on each change reload the page to see the result.
Of course it’s not worth making the experience horrible for 99% just to make sure that the one 1% without the technology needed to access a reasonable implementation should have to suffer.

You simply cannot just count on how many customers you loose because they are not able to use your application, you also have to evaluate how many you will gain by having something that is really usable for the vast majority of visitors.

And lets not even mention where for example youtube would be today if they decided that they cannot rely on any technology that doesn’t have 100% coverage.


Content is king

Sure the internet is mainly about information and entertainment, but there are examples of successful sites that have hardly no content.
No, I don’t count milliondollarhomepage. Despite being successful it’s too stupid to prove a point.

But some sites mostly deal with branding and the content is actually not that important.
How many people have visited because of the content?
Still I would guess it’s a very successful site when it comes to achieving it’s goals and that it has done a lot to promote their services. Not thanks to the content but almost exclusively due to the looks.


While all of these mantras are very important aspects when it comes to design I think it’s important to see them as factors rather than absolutes. It’s not always easy to evaluate how much complexity your users will appreciate or how much a certain technology can add and compare that to the impact of that to excluding some visitors.
But it’s always about trying to find a correct balance and thinking that there is one answer for every scenario is fooling yourself into thinking reality is simpler than it is.


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