Simplicity Versus Clarity

One method that designers, developers, and (especially) marketers often use to increase usability is to make things “simple.” Often, the approach is simply to take away features and performance criteria to leave only a few. This isn’t a terrible strategy—that is, if you know which criteria are the most important to keep in terms of the solution’s intended performance and in terms of what customers actually need. As simple as this sounds, most organizations are terrible at identifying what outcomes cus­tomers actually need. Instead they try to sepa­rate product features into identified layers of “consumer” (often lacking critical features), expert or professional (often packing features without improving how they’re presented), and enterprise (often ignoring usability altogether under the assumption that users will want to either configure the interface themselves or have no problem finding the signals they want among the noise).

Most businesses think that simplicity is the only way to make solutions more usable, but this is neither foolproof nor the best method. Often, simply deleting features renders a prod­uct or service more ineffective. Complexity, in itself, isn’t bad. In fact, it’s often critical to both understanding and usability.

Maps, for example, can be extremely complex. Yet if we were to simply reduce the data on them, they would cease to work well because the context needed for understanding them would be altered, often eliminating the pos­sibility they could be used for more than one purpose. Instead, the critical ingredient doesn’t involve deleting the data, but rather making its organization and presentation clearer for people. Simplicity can be a winning strategy sometimes, but clarity is always required, no matter what the level of complexity is.

Most businesses think that simplic­ity is the only way to make solutions more usable, but this is neither fool proof nor the best method.

A simple map, like a simple life, isn’t terribly representative of most people’s experiences. When solutions are simplified, they usually become less effective because they no longer apply to the complex experiences we encounter. Instead, rendering the complex clear reflects the reality of most systems, solutions, and ex­periences without sacrificing understanding or usability. To do this, clarity relies on the prioriti­zation of cognitive models and features that are most important, while downplaying those that are less critical. This can be done through care­ful arrangement of elements in the visual, audi­tory, temporal, and other sensorial dimensions.

Updated: September 30, 2015 — 12:34 am