Why is simple so hard?

Tony Olsson
9 min readMar 18, 2023

In many cases, UX design and software have become overcomplicated. With the increasing complexity of technology and the growing number of features and options available to users, designers often face the challenge of balancing functionality with usability.

One reason for the trend towards overcomplication in UX design and software is the pressure to constantly innovate and add new features. In an effort to stay competitive and keep up with changing user needs and expectations, designers may add more and more features to their products, leading to a cluttered and confusing user interface.

In contrast, designs that prioritise simplicity and functionality can create a better user experience by reducing cognitive load, minimizing distractions, and making it easier for users to find the information or functionality they need. By focusing on the needs of the user and prioritizing function over form, designers can create designs that are both aesthetically pleasing and easy to use.

Simplicity is a concept that has been embraced by designers throughout history. Designers have found that simplicity can be a powerful tool in creating an effective and impactful design. Minimalism is the design movement that emphasizes simplicity and the use of minimal elements to create elegant and functional designs. Many famous designers have embraced minimalism in their work, creating iconic designs that have had a significant impact on the field of design.

One of the most well-known minimalist designers is Dieter Rams, who worked for the German consumer electronics company Braun from 1955 to 1995. Rams’ designs were characterized by their clean lines, simplicity, and functionality. He is best known for his Ten Principles of Good Design, which emphasize the importance of simplicity, clarity, and innovation in design.

Photo by Sherzod Max on Unsplash

Another famous minimalist designer is the Austrian architect and designer Adolf Loos. Loos is known for his rejection of ornamental design in favour of a more minimalist approach. He famously declared that “ornament is crime,” arguing that excessive ornamentation detracted from the true beauty of a design. His designs emphasized simplicity, functionality, and the use of high-quality materials.

In Japan, the concept of minimalism has long been an important part of the country’s design aesthetic. Japanese designers such as Naoto Fukasawa and Kenya Hara are known for their minimalist designs, which prioritize simplicity and functionality. Fukasawa’s work includes the MUJI CD player, which is a simple, elegant design that emphasizes usability and user experience.

In Scandinavian design, minimalism has also been an important influence. Danish designer Arne Jacobsen, for example, is known for his minimalist furniture designs, including the iconic Egg Chair. Finnish designer Alvar Aalto is also known for his minimalist designs, which emphasize the use of natural materials and clean lines.

In philosophy, simplicity is often associated with the concept of “parsimony,” or the idea that the simplest explanation or solution is often the most likely to be true or effective. This idea can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who argued that “nature operates in the shortest way possible.”

One of the most influential philosophers to discuss simplicity was the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. Ockham is best known for his principle of parsimony, also known as “Ockham’s razor.” This principle states that when there are multiple possible explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct.

The principle of parsimony has been applied in a wide range of fields, from science and mathematics to philosophy and theology. In each case, the goal is to find the simplest and most elegant solution to a problem or question.

Ornamentation is often seen as the foe of simplicity in design. Ornamentation refers to the use of decorative elements in a design, such as intricate patterns, embellishments, or decorative typography. While these elements may add visual interest to a design, they can also create clutter and distract from the essential elements of a design.

Ornamentation can become noise when it distracts from the primary purpose of the design, adds unnecessary visual complexity, or interferes with the clarity of the message being communicated. In other words, when the decorative elements in a design do not contribute to the overall effectiveness or aesthetic appeal of the design, they can be seen as noise.

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For example, consider a website that is cluttered with decorative graphics and animations that serve no functional purpose. These elements may be visually interesting, but they can also slow down the user experience and make it harder for users to navigate and find the information they need. In this case, the ornamentation has become noise, interfering with the primary goal of the website, which is to provide information to users.

Similarly, in product design, ornamentation can become noise when it interferes with the function or usability of the product. Consider a kitchen gadget that is adorned with decorative elements that make it harder to clean or use effectively. In this case, the ornamentation has become noise, detracting from the primary purpose of the product, which is to make cooking easier and more efficient.

In the field of communication theory, noise refers to any unwanted or irrelevant information that interferes with the communication process. Shannon and Weaver, two prominent figures in the field of communication theory, defined noise as any interference that can occur during the transmission of a message from a sender to a receiver.

According to Shannon and Weaver’s model of communication, noise can take several different forms, including:

  • Physical noise: This refers to any external sounds or distractions that can interfere with the transmission of a message, such as traffic noise or a loud air conditioner.
  • Semantic noise: This refers to any confusion or misunderstanding that can arise from differences in the meanings of words or phrases used by the sender and receiver.
  • Psychological noise: This refers to any internal distractions or biases that can affect the receiver’s ability to understand the message, such as personal beliefs, attitudes, or emotions.

Shannon and Weaver’s model of communication emphasizes the importance of minimizing noise to ensure that messages are accurately transmitted from the sender to the receiver. To do so, designers of communication systems must consider all of the different types of noise that can occur and take steps to eliminate or minimize them. By doing so, they can help ensure that communication is more effective and successful.

Noise is bad for interactions because it can hinder communication and reduce the effectiveness of the interaction. When there is too much noise in an interaction, it can be difficult for the parties involved to understand each other, leading to confusion and misunderstandings. This can be especially problematic in situations where clear communication is critical, such as in business negotiations, customer service interactions, or emergency situations.

In addition, noise can also contribute to biases and other cognitive distortions that can further hinder decision-making. There are several psychological factors that can make it difficult to design simple things, such as cognitive load, cognitive biases, and mental models.

Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to process information. When we encounter new information, our brains must work hard to process it and integrate it with our existing knowledge. If a design is too complex, it can overwhelm our cognitive resources, making it difficult to understand and use.

Cognitive biases are another factor that can make it hard to design simple things. Our brains are wired to take shortcuts in decision-making, which can lead to biases and errors in judgment. For example, the confirmation bias leads us to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, while the availability heuristic causes us to overestimate the importance of information that is readily available to us. These biases can make it difficult to design simple things that are easy to understand, as they can cause us to overlook important information or make flawed assumptions.

Mental models are another psychological factor that can complicate the design. Mental models are the frameworks we use to understand how things work. When we encounter a new design, we compare it to our mental models to try to make sense of it. If a design does not fit our mental model, we may struggle to understand it. This is why it can be difficult to design simple things that are easy to understand — designers must take into account the mental models of their users and create designs that are consistent with those models.

While there is no formal “minimalist movement” in UI design, there is a strong trend towards minimalism in contemporary UI design. This trend is driven by several factors, including the increasing prevalence of mobile devices and the need for responsive, scalable design, as well as a growing recognition of the importance of simplicity and clarity in user experience design.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

One reason why there may not be a formal minimalist movement in UI design is that minimalism is often seen as a means to an end rather than a goal in and of itself. In other words, designers are less concerned with adhering to a specific minimalist aesthetic or philosophy than with creating designs that are simple, clear, and effective for users.

Another factor is that UI design is a constantly evolving field, with new technologies and design patterns emerging all the time. As a result, design trends and approaches are constantly shifting, and there may not be a single dominant design philosophy or movement at any given time.

That being said, many designers and design firms embrace minimalist principles in their UI design work, emphasising simplicity, clarity, and usability in their designs.

Incorporating minimalism in UI design can lead to a more effective and user-friendly experience. Here are some strategies to help you maintain minimalism in your designs:

1. Focus on Essential Features

  • Identify the key functions and features that users need, and prioritize them in your design.
  • Eliminate any unnecessary elements that do not contribute to the core purpose of the product.

2. Simplify Navigation

  • Organize content in a clear, logical manner to help users find what they need quickly and easily.
  • Use intuitive navigation patterns and clearly labelled buttons to guide users through the interface.
  • 3. Create a Clean Layout- Use whitespace and visual hierarchy to create a clean, uncluttered layout that emphasises important elements and enhances readability. Arrange content in a clear, structured manner, and avoid cluttering the interface with too many elements.

4. Use Consistent and Clear Visual Design

  • Establish a consistent visual style throughout the interface, using a limited colour palette and typography that is easy to read.
  • Use simple, meaningful icons and graphics that convey information clearly and effectively.

5. Optimize for Accessibility

  • Ensure that your design is accessible to users with disabilities by incorporating features such as keyboard navigation, alternative text for images, and high-contrast colours.
  • Test your design with accessibility tools and guidelines to ensure that it meets the needs of all users.

Adopting a minimalist approach in UI design offers several advantages:

1. Improved Usability

  • Simpler designs are easier for users to understand and navigate, leading to a more efficient and satisfying user experience.

2. Faster Load Times

  • Minimalist designs typically require fewer resources, which can result in faster load times and improved performance.

3. Easier Maintenance

  • With fewer elements and a simpler structure, minimalist designs can be easier to update and maintain.

4. Enhanced Aesthetics

  • Minimalist designs often have a clean, modern look that can be visually appealing to users.

5. Increased Focus on Content

  • By eliminating distractions and unnecessary elements, minimalist designs allow users to focus more on the content and functionality of the product.

In conclusion, simplicity is a fundamental principle of design that is essential for creating effective and user-friendly solutions. From architecture to product design, minimalism has been used throughout history to create solutions that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. However, achieving simplicity in design is not always easy, as designers must balance the need for clarity and usability with the desire for visual interest and creativity.

The key to simplifying a design is to focus on the essential components and remove any unnecessary elements. This can involve using a minimalist approach to layout, typography, and colour, as well as prioritizing clarity and ease of use. By testing designs with users and gathering feedback, designers can ensure that their solutions are effective and easy to use.

Ultimately, the goal of design should be to create solutions that are simple, elegant, and effective, regardless of the level of ornamentation used. By prioritizing simplicity, designers can create solutions that meet the needs of their users and stand the test of time.

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