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The Simple Shall Inherit the World Wide Web

The logical argument is:

  • The more stuff there is on a web page (the more different areas there are, the more diverse signs, words and options)…
  • The more things the visitor will need to view in order to find the path to what they want…
  • The chance of their finding the sign they need before giving up can only be lower with more noise, and the amount of work can only increase

The Simple numbers game

Simple is best. It’s always a good idea to look for the simple core within a complex situation. The dedication to simplicity is core to the “Save the Pixel” approach.

Unnecessary complexity brings risk and cost disproportionate to its benefits. You should aim to have only as much of anything as is necessary to get the job done. How much “X” should you
have in your web site? “Enough, and no more!”

Put another way, your web pages should be no more complex than they need to be to fulfil their various objectives.

Simplicity benefits the web professional in numerous ways:

  1. Simpler designs are quicker to create, requiring fewer pixels and strokes of the mouse. Making something twice as complex as it needs to be doesn’t usually mean it takes twice as long to make. In the long run, I reckon it will take four times as much work.
  2. They’re also quicker and easier to produce/slice into templates. (It takes a tiny fraction of the time to build a box with square edges, compared to a box with 4 rounded corners.)
  3. It’s easier to debug, make valid, edit and re-engineer etc.
  4. Simple pages make smaller files, with fewer assets, which download quicker and are more likely to look right on a variety of browsers. All this improves people’s experience.

Simplicity is good for business. Successful web sites are consciously playing a percentage game. You want to retain visitors from their entry page right through to the goal being reached. If this is selling shoes, the more people you retain at each step in the process, the more shoes you sell.

Simple messages often come across more successfully (because of the way we consume web pages, scanning for clues rather than reading).

When to be different

Most design problems have been faced and solved before. The better solutions have been used again and again, and have become conventions, which persist until a better solution still comes along to displace it.

Sure, there are always new contexts and new issues, which require original solutions, but in any project the majority of the challenges are not original.

There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.

Ecclesiastes

When faced with any problem, the designer has two ways they can go.

  • One is to address the problem as a new challenge, and attempt to solve it from first principles. This is usually challenging and fun, and it’s also time-consuming and risky.
  • The second way is to re-use previous solutions to similar problems – “standing on the shoulders of giants”. In design, this second approach means using design conventions (patterns for layout, navigation, style etc., that have worked successfully before).

Conventions are our friends

There are thousands of common design patterns that have become conventions, for good reason. Familiar, conventional solutions make life easier for you, the designer, and also for the people who visit your sites, because it takes less thought to implement and understand something that looks and feels familiar and behaves just how you expect.

A minority of web designers seem to believe that it’s their job to make everything different and unconventional. While this is very occasionally true, it’s more commonly the designer following their own agenda (perhaps based on the belief that feedback from other designers is the most important success criterion). Perhaps sometimes that’s also valid, but not in the case of most commercial design projects. It’s rarely in a site’s best interests to be unconventional.

To approach every challenge from naivety, trying to come up with a novel design solution is frankly a crazy waste of energy. Brand new design solutions not only take more work, time, and creative energy, but they also have less chance of success. (It’s a natural law that a significant proportion of new things fail: new products, new life forms, new design widgets etc.)

Sure, we often need to create new things as designers. But how do you decide where to direct your precious creative energy, and when is it best to pull out an existing convention?

My answer would be: use a convention wherever it clearly works satisfactorily.

Always look for an existing convention first, especially when the problem itself is conventional. If you can’t find a conventional solution that works in the context of this project, only then invest in full-on original creative thinking.

Conventional problems include things like:

  • Overall page layouts. You can easily recognise certain genres of web site by the layout employed. This is usually a good thing — it means visitors can start interacting with content with minimal thought to establish whether they’re in the right place.
  • Navigation patterns. Tabs, nav bars, drop-down menus, and inline links are all tried and tested solutions that need no explanation.
  • Form layouts. There are ways to arrange form inputs, labels, and buttons that are obvious, use space efficiently, and are accessible to everyone regardless of disability.

Always consider whether there’s an obvious way to achieve what you need. If you find yourself doubting the obvious convention, try looking at the alternatives from the site visitor’s point of view. What’s more likely to help them get what they want out of the site?

You don’t need to be Clever to be Brilliant

It’s tempting to try and make your website stand out by showing how smart you or your audience are. This is invariably a mistake.

Think of the most successful advertisements you can recall. Are they simple or clever? They might be fun and entertaining, or they might not be.

They might be very obvious, or they might be abstract, word-based or image-based. But the ones that stick in my mind have a simple concept or message at their core.

Lots of people enjoy intellectual stimulation, but there are better places to go for that kind of thing, like picking up a sudoku. Why are people visiting your site? Unless you’re running a technical or political publication, where your goals may depend on intellectual stimulation, don’t try to make your visitors think, they won’t stick around to thank you.

Cleverness introduces risk. Don’t use in-jokes that rely on specific prior knowledge. Question marks over your visitors’ heads are a sign of mental friction, which is a sign that you’ll be leaking eyeballs.

One of the risks of challenging your visitor’s intellect is that you’ll make them feel stupid, and you don’t want to do that! Even if you don’t make them feel stupid, your page will still take more work to get through, and you don’t want that either! Because attention is limited and the clock is ticking. The easier you make it to pick up the scent, the more people you’ll keep.

Being “clever” doesn’t make you look smarter. In the case of service providers, it can actually make you seem less accessible and less useful.

If you have a message/values/benefits to communicate, just do it! State it, make it plain, bold and unambiguous. When someone gets to your site, they want to know if it’s worth persevering with the site. Are they likely to get the information or service they want? So make your site transparent. “This is who we are, this is what we do, who we do it for, and how.”

Be smart, not clever

Keeping it simple is hard. One reason it’s hard is because we so often feel compelled to be doing something “more”, to be different in order to keep the visitor interested. That’s how cleverness creeps in. When you’re creating your web site this little voice can start telling you that it’s too boring, too much like the next site. You feel a desperate need to come up with something with a bit more jazz.

Always keep in mind that the people who’ll be coming to this web site to find what they want aren’t web designers. They don’t get a kick out of looking at new and interesting web designs. They’re looking through the design, scanning for meaningful clues in the content. The purpose of your design is not to draw attention to itself. It’s to facilitate communication.

When that little voice starts, cover your ears and concentrate hard on your visitors’ goals. What do they need from you?

Consider your choices using a pure “Save the Pixel” framework. Any pixels you use to make your visitors think you’re clever are pixels you’re not using to guide them directly to what they want. Apply Occam’s Razor. Is there a simpler way to achieve the same thing? If so, use it. The simpler solution is better.

Why should you avoid questions like this?

A rhetorical question is a linguistic device in which you make a point using the form of a question that doesn’t actually require an answer, often proceeding to answer it yourself. This is clearly not the simplest way to communicate a point.

Questions like, “Why use Cleverdick Consulting?” often make me think, “I don’t know, and I don’t care! Seeya!”

Rhetorical questions are generally unhelpful because they create question marks in your visitor’s head, a sign of friction. Any question creates a void, which the visitor is expected to fill, and that means your site loses control of the dialogue.

You wouldn’t expect to walk into a car showroom and the salesperson come up to you and ask, “Why would you choose to shop here?”, would you?

Hint: If you have a rhetorical question, try simply turning it into a statement, maybe just by removing the question mark. “Why use Cleverdick Consulting” is much stronger when put as a statement than as a question.

Get “Save the Pixel – the Art of Simple Web Design” in full – still only £27

If you need simple web design, check out these web designers who focus on simplicity: in New Jersey, New York, and Cape Town.

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