UX, Thought Leaders

The Case for and Against Simplicity in UX

March 31, 2020

by Paul Azorín

Founder and Chief Technology Officer, BairesDev

Simplicity in UX is a good practice because people's attention spans are shorter, and users value convenience. Simplicity is not always the answer in UX, however, because some products benefit from more features and simplicity isn't always engaging.

Even people with the slightest idea of user experience know that, on the most basic level, anyone looking to build a satisfying UX needs to aim for simplicity. There are tons of online articles about it; it’s the essential advice most experts give out. It even has psychological principles backing its implementation. What’s more — it feels like common sense.

So, what’s there to discuss? Why would anyone dispute simplicity as a key component of great UX? Well, mostly because UX design isn’t an exact science, so blindly pursuing simplicity as if it were the Holy Grail can end up hurting your business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small clothing store or the leader of a software development outsourcing company. If you aim for simplicity “just because,” you need to rethink your objectives.

The Case for Simplicity in UX

It’s incredible that so many people put simplicity on a UX pedestal but can’t seem to agree on a definition of what it truly means. Ask different people, and you’ll get very different answers. To some, simplicity is about clean design. For others, it’s about how intuitive something actually is. There are others who feel like it’s a matter of the number of features.

Yet, even with those varying definitions, most UX experts agree that simplicity is something that any company should aspire to when building a product, a service, a website, or whatever. There’s myriad reasons why they back that claim up.

1. People’s Attention Spans Are Shorter

You probably have read somewhere that most of us can’t keep our focus during a sustained amount of time. Blame the internet and the never-ending information with which it bombards and overstimulates us.

In such a context, it isn’t surprising that UX experts want to keep their designs clean and with few options. The goal, after all, is to avoid overwhelming people to the point where they stop paying attention.

2. Users Value Convenience More Than Anything

Convenience, in UX, is a synonym of an interaction that offers the least resistance. After all, 94% of people say easy navigation is an important website feature.

Top 7 website features

In other words, people see simplicity as “I push a button, and the thing that I want happens,” like calling an Uber. To do that, you just have to open the app, ask for a ride, wait for it to arrive, all while paying automatically — everything with the tap of a few buttons.

3. People Want Options — but Not Too Many Options

There’s a psychological phenomenon called Choice Overload that says we tend to paralyze when presented with too many choices.

Basically, this means people want to have a selection to pick from but one that isn’t so vast for them to feel overwhelmed. Simplicity (understood as something that has a few core features) would go in hand with this principle.

Of course, there are more reasons why UX experts value simplicity so much. But you get the point - there are valid ways to justify why all of them aim for products and services to be simple before anything else. What’s more — if you pressure them into picking one thing and one thing alone for their creations, UX designers would definitely pick simplicity before anything else.

Yet, that sort of obsession with simplicity isn’t precisely good for all cases and on all projects. In fact, claiming that simplicity is the ultimate UX goal as if it were an undeniable truth may be very harmful, simply because doing so ignores that such a statement is a partial truth.

The Case Against Simplicity in UX

The other part of the truth is that simplicity depends on the project you’re working on. Sometimes, simplicity is less of an asset and more of something that gets in the way of a truly valuable product. Though UX experts might want you to think that there isn’t something as important as simplicity, certain projects need a different approach.

Besides, there’s also the subjectivity we’ve mentioned before. Most people who value simplicity use it as a synonym for “ease of use,” “efficiency,” and “superior experiences.” But that’s not necessarily so. As it happens with other things (from football plays to music genres), complexity can be a good thing.

Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t always go for the simplest version of your project.

1. Sometimes a Product Benefits From More Features

A modern smartphone is a perfect way to understand this point. Earlier mobile phones only made phone calls — they were as simple as they could possibly get. Yet, manufacturers felt like there was room for more and started adding features such as SMS, internet connectivity, cameras, radio, GPS, and all kinds of apps.

Today’s phones are more complicated than those early versions, but no one would think that they’ve gotten worse. Even when all of those features “complicated” the products, they are better now than they ever were.

2. Simplicity Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Great UX”

Nearly half of people (48%) say they would return to a website if they found its content useful — good website content is essential at attracting users.

Top 3 reasons people return to a website

This means that people don’t only value the simplicity of a website but rather how the website can help them.

There was a time when online searches relied on you inputting keywords in a search box, clicking a button, and browsing through the results. That was it. It was a really straightforward process that, according to UX experts, should have given a great experience.

However, a lot of the time, it was pretty frustrating. Without the ability to filter out results, we depended on what the search engines gave us which, at that time, could be a lot of unrelated stuff.

If we wanted to check the newest articles, filter out certain sites, or look for specific terms, we were out of luck. That isn’t the case in modern search engines, which give us a finer experience by giving us more control and options.

3. Simplicity Isn’t Always Engaging

People aren’t all the same. We all have different skills, views on life, abilities, interests, and emotions. So, assuming that everyone will always love or engage with the simplest things is a blatant overlook of this fact.

There are people who might like to have more options, who will like more control over the experience, who will want a more “busy” experience. It’s the same principle that makes people admire Jackson Pollock or listen to jazz — simplicity can be boring for certain people who feel that rich engagement is based on more, not less.

You Shouldn’t Pay Any Price for Simplicity

You should not just ignore simplicity when designing your own UX, but simplicity should not be the ruling principle in UX. As with most things in life, simplicity will depend on what you’re working on and who you’re working for.

Audiences are different, so different people will use, engage with, and value different experiences. Simplicity might not always cut it for all of them. Sometimes, you’ll need to provide them with more features and options to satisfy their needs.

This doesn’t mean that you can throw clean designs out the window. Your product should always feel intuitive and aim to be as easy to use as possible. However, none of those things are synonyms of simplicity. What’s more, none of those should get in the way of the only aspect that matters when designing a new product or service — that it fulfills the needs of its users.

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