Good to Great, Part 2

I once worked with a marketing professional that dabbled in SEO and Usability. She would often say, "We need to talk to our users like they're 3rd graders." She was fond of talking down to users and then adding clarification text in parenthesis. And nothing could ever be left to user intuition, everything had to be labeled - with bright colors like green and red, not subtle, "grey-ed out" labels. Here's an example of what I'm talking about.

What is your billing address?
(Where do you receive your credit card bill each month?)

This always bothered me and just felt wrong. I mean, is there something too vague about "billing address"? What's not to understand? The notion behind it all was one of trying to make it more user-friendly, with helpful verbiage and a friendly tone, but to me, it misses the mark. Instead of getting a better user experience, it seemed like all that resulted in were pages cluttered with instructional chatter. When you have several "instructional messages" on one page, its starts to get out of hand. That leads us to Part 2 of this series.

Good to Great, Part 2: Good designers add more detail to clarify; Great designers take away detail to make things more clear.

Perhaps you're familiar with the popular quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

We designers need to know when to get out of the way of our users and design the interface so they can "just use it" without thinking too long about it or without having to read something along ever step of the way.

This is not only true with the visual aspects of an interface, but in the content as well. In the highly acclaimed book, Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug suggests:

"Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left."

My philosophy is that if you find yourself having to footnote everything or add help verbiage for every action item, then you probably need to step back and re-evaluate what you're trying to say. Think about how you can use design elements, intelligent metaphors or other visuals to lead a user to a specific task instead of saying "look here" or "click on this button".

Ask yourself these questions the next time you are faced with creating a user experience or trying to improve an existing one:

  • Is most of my content about explaining "how" rather than "why"?
  • Have I needlessly broken any conventions that would force the user to think twice about how to interact with a particular element?
  • Are there places where I can use visual elements or metaphors instead of verbiage?
  • What exactly does the user need to do on this page and how can I make it ridiculously easy for them to do it?

Difficult questions to answer, no doubt. But when we're conscious of these things, it forces us to design intuitive user experiences, rather than merely explaining how to use an interface.