The value of simplicity in design

As a software developer I can tell you for sure that I am not a User Experience (UX) expert, but I can give you an opinion from experience on what looks good or what is easier to use verses something that is not.

What ‘looks good’ is obviously a highly subjective point of view, but what ‘works well’ or is easy to use is (again from my lack of experience as a UX expert) I assume easier to measure with a variety of metrics (think time spent on page, time spent looking for x on page, time between related clicks/keypresses, number of required navigation steps to get from x to y etc).

The reason for this post is that I’ve come across this quote a few times in multiple places over the past few days:

“… perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove”

(from French author, Antoine de Saint Exupéry)

In software development at the lowest level, there’s a number of guiding principals that are related to simplicity, for example ‘do one thing and do it well’, with the intent that a method or a class that does one thing is far easier for a developer to understand and maintain. The current trend for microservices caries this concept through to how you structure, package and deploy your system, not as a monolithic single deployment unit, but as many smaller services that ‘do one thing and do it well’.

Bearing all the above in mind, I’ve always found it interesting how Apple clearly follows these design principals in OS X by simplifying the user experience from release to release. Even their hardware products clearly ‘do one thing and do it well’. The iPod was a perfect example of this – it was a music player and nothing else. On the other hand, Microsoft tend to take a different approach and seem to be on a never ending quest to continually add more features, with each release becoming more feature rich, more complex and more difficult to use. Think of any of the MS Office apps and the dizzying array of features each app has, and the amount of time you spend looking for the one feature that you know must be in there somewhere but it’s never in the ribbon bar where you think it should be. Presumably at some point Microsoft does usability testing with typical users – at what point though do they decide that the UX design is good or acceptable? Maybe I’m not a typical user, but if asked to give an example of a well designed and easy to use application, any Microsoft application would definitely not be first to come to mind. Apple don’t escape unscathed here either – some of the recent design changes in iTunes over the past few releases have boggled my mind (related options in different places, some on the far left of the app and some on the right).

I don’t think I had any particular point to make in this post, so I’ll leave with a link to one of my favorite UX books (again, not as an expert in this area). If you’re designing the UI for an application, please, Don’t Make Me Think.

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