updated: November 10th, 2010 / Ross Johnson / 0 Comments

Simple

Simplicity, so elegant yet so elusive.

The web by and large does a terrible job of being simple.

In some part there isn’t much that can be done as the infrastructure of the web is inherently complicated. After all, the infrastructure required that allows a user to access a website consists of service providers, web hosts, routers, hops, server and client software, compatible protocols and countless other necessities. With this high level of complexity needed to simply request, serve and view a website is it even possible to reach true simplicity when it comes to the web? Maybe not in the purest form of the word but we should all strive for it.

I will state again that we should all strive for simplicity. The advantages of simplicity are countless and yet often forgotten. This isn’t to say that when asked “should this be simple?” the average person would respond with “no, make it complex.” Rather the idea of keeping something simple often is neglected in the excitement of new possibilities, functionality and features. This happens naturally during any stage of brainstorming or conceptual development. The whole idea behind brainstorming is to think big, large and outside normal expectations and conventions. There is nothing wrong with this and should be encouraged, however rarely do people follow a brainstorm with the reeling in of these big ideas to simplify them.

By keeping things simple the effectiveness of any project increases exponentially. This is why it is so important to take big complex ideas and make them simple. Consider the following reasons that simplicity benefits any website or application.

Costs

Complex is expensive. Not only to build but also maintain and improve as well. This cost can be incurred in time (which is a form of currency whether you are paying for it directly or not), service costs or software costs. Complex sites and applications take longer to plan, design, program and build. Additionally a complex system will take more time to upgrade and maintain.

Adding one piece of content to a website creates a ripple that many fail to realize. That one piece of content creates an extra navigational item, an extra search result and an extra area that needs management and thought (so it won’t become out of date or irrelevant).

Focus

This concept is best illustrated by the phrase “Jack of trades, master of none.” While the original intention of the phrase is intended for people and development of skills and knowledge it applies to the web as well. As a website or application tries to do more there is effort put into new features or functionality and not towards improving the elements of the site that are already its strong points.

Focus is a huge asset to marketing as well. You will find that it is much easier to become the best in a specific niche area than to become the best of a large market. By keeping your approach simple and focused you can completely cater to that niche and not trying to please anyone and everyone.

Ease

One of the greatest compliments any website, product or piece of software can receive is “It is simple to use.” This mindset and goal is what has led to the recent mass success that Google.com and Apple have seen. Both companies set out to make a task as easy as possible. In the case of Apple and music they have made it easier and more enjoyable to pay for music than to find it on pirated music sites.

Simplicity makes your site or application much easier to use. Every extra page on your site is one more item a user has to sort through to find what they are looking for. Every extra feature is another item about your application that your user needs to find and learn how to use. Any addition to your site or application makes it more difficult to use.

The human working memory is 7 items (plus or minus 2). This means if you have a 15 item navigation the user is likely to forget what one or two of the items are by the time they are done reading through your menu (this is often called Millers Law).

Reliability

It is easy to get wrapped up in the latest Javascript enhancement and forget that as a site or application increases in complexity it also acquires more points of failure. A static HTML/CSS site while simple and perhaps boring has very few points of failure. Beyond the server itself having issues you can be sure that on some level users will be able to access your site and content. Alternatively a dynamic site with a content management system requires an underlying programming language and often a database as well. The programming language opens up vulnerabilities to hacking and the database server is another element that could have issues or failures.

Clarity

Hick’s law states that with every additional choice the time it will take for one to make a selection increases. This not only affects what links a user clicks on from your app or website but also what they feel they should focus their eyes on. Every incremental item on your page is another choice of what to look at, make sense of, understand and remember. By removing everything that is unnecessary you create clarity for a user in terms of what they should look at, click on, understand and remember.

This also can be an asset to your marketing efforts. By focusing on core strengths and eliminating all other aspects of your business you will create clarity of your business, its strengths and what it stands for. Not only will you gain brand retention and recognition, you are likely to have a stronger product as all interactions will truly wow the users or potential customers. Anything that is not part of your core strengths is noise, detracting from full the potential of your business, application or website.

The Web

While simplicity should be weighed and balanced, the strive for simple is ultimately what is most important. It might be necessary to add complexity in one area to create simplicity in another. The example of a content management system is a perfect example of this. Provided you are making the site as simple as possible it is OK to add complexity where it needed.

I stress this because even the most simple of websites has such a high level of detail that is often ignored. If you consider all the detail that even a small website should be addressing you will realize that few if any actually do.

  • Accessibility
  • SEO
  • Print
  • Mobile
  • Redirects
  • Back up
  • Security
  • Usability
  • Syndication
  • Goals / Objectives
  • User tasks
  • Speed
  • Valid code
  • Cross browser compatibility

Each one of these areas has their own subset of tasks that should be implemented. Page speed for example could include everything from using a content delivery network to creating CSS sprites of all possible images. Security covers everything from proper server configuration, software maintenance, .htaccess rules, password choice, etc…

It should be obvious that even a five-page site requires a high attention to detail if you’re to make it solid, well-built and effective. With every page you add, every feature you build and every enhancement you craft you are compounding the detail required to build that same solid, well-built and effective website.

It is this reason that you should strive to not only keep your own projects and sites simple, but educate clients on the risks and draw backs of complexity. This will make you both happier, as the website will free of errors and omissions, easier to use and ultimately more effective.