Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Complex Definition of Simple

Definition: “Having few parts; not complex, complicated or involved”

What does this mean? I’ve seen companies misconstrue this definition many times over, resulting in the opposite of what they intended. Look at the recent redesign as an example of this. They made “simple” a core component of their design rationale, yet the user feedback they received was generally the opposite. They defined simple literally in their design as being sparse and uncluttered. The users like lots of links to winnow through and found that to be simple. The new smaller components to scan through items made the site more difficult to them.

There are approximately 600 links on Ebay’s collectibles page. It’s not pretty, but all Ebay does is continue to make money and repeatedly deliver good experiences. Their user base is not a tech crowd. They are as varied and lowest-common-denominator as you can get. Imagine designing a website for people trying to sell collectible shot glasses. Now imagine if Ebay literally defined simple and redesigned their website. Mass defection!’s tagline is “life made easier,” so I was hoping to see if their web experience lived up to this. I clicked on “Meals” to look for a simple recipe for the upcoming weekend entertaining. First off, a pop-up banner layer conflicted with a Flash banner, resulting in me not being able to CLOSE the pop-up (here's a screen grab). The majority and most important part of the page was obscured. I reloaded the page and that seemed to fix it. Real frustrating. Then I chose a recipe for a beef tenderloin appetizer:

Slice the baguettes in half lengthwise. Spread a flavored butter on both cut sides of each baguette and arrange thin slices of beef on one halfbefore putting the sandwich together. Use a serrated bread knife to slice each baguette into about 12 mini sandwiches.

Not only was there a typo in this, but you might have to be a foodie to understand this. Are’s users foodies? If so, this would be real simple. Did they know this instinctively, use demographics, conduct surveys or do they speak to their customers?

I’ve worked on complex applications with addicted users that find working on their applications “simple.” The majority of these applications have tons of components that are not intuitive, however. If I was to add explicit labels and make the screen more intuitive I’d have more customer support calls than I care to imagine. How do I avoid this? I have existing, recent data on customers and if the project warrants it I conduct field studies.

The definition of simple is a balance of a lot of things, but most importantly you have to understand your customers by interviewing and observing them. After that, meeting business requirements and applying best practices becomes a goal much more realistic to meet.

If you are a UX designer in a company that doesn’t get you involved early in the process and afford you access to users, how can repeated success be expected? What is the ideal product lifecycle and place for User Experience in a company's hierarchy? I'd love to hear what others think on this.

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