Myth #34: Simple = minimal


Simplicity is key to great and innovative product design. But simplicity (reduction of complexity) is way often confused with minimalist style (reduction of elements). In fact, simple looking, minimal product UIs often carry hidden complexity.

Design decisions aiming for reduction can easily introduce more friction and cognitive load, leading to a more complex user experience. Icons without text labels are difficult to understand, non-standard gestures provide no obvious affordance, the minimalist hamburger menu was proven many times to perform poorly.

We should all strive for simplicity, but we must make sure not to oversimplify for the sake of minimalism. As Albert Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Minimalist style doesn’t always lead to product simplicity

  • Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, says that one of the most common design mistakes is “overvaluing simplicity and style at the cost of clarity.” – The 5 Most Common Design Mistakes
  • Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, makes a clear distinction between minimalism and simplicity: minimalism is a style, “a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex.” Minimalism is only skin deep. Simplicity comes from the understanding of the whole experience. – Simple or minimal?
  • In a similar vein, Steven Sinofsky contrasts minimalist design (reducing the surface area of an experience) to frictionless design (reducing the energy required by an experience), saying that “The minimalism is wonderful, but the ability to get going comes with high friction. The Unix philosophy of small cooperating tools is wonderfully minimal (every tool does a small number of things and does them well), but the learning and skills required are high friction.” – Frictionless Design Choices
  • “Less buttons, switches, and options do not make something simple.” says Jason Stirman – Simple and Clean
  • Dan Saffer argues for visible design. He says that “not only are visible designs potentially more valuable, they are potentially more usable as well.” – The Myth of Invisible Design
  • John Maeda writes in his book, The Laws of Simplicity: “On the one hand, you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it to do. […] The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.”
  • More is often…more: “In some cases designs actually need more of something to become simple.[…] Prevailing wisdom suggests that simplicity is about less…removal and reductionism. But simplicity is really about comprehension and clarity of purpose…can we design such that people instantly understand what’s going on and make a confident decision about what to do next?” – What does it mean to be simple?
  • Frank de Jong explains that a minimal UI is only one way to simplicity, and often not the best way: “by forcing a minimalistic design on the provided functionality, an interface feels less simplistic. The reduction of meaningful information leads to confusion, and in the end: a flawed user experience.” – We want more by seeing less
  • Frank Chimero writes: “I am tired of simple things. Simple things are weak. They are limited. They are boring. What I truly want is clarity. Give me clear and evident things over simple things.” – Only Openings
  • Jonas Downey asks why some cluttered, complex products become wildly successful, like Facebook, Craigslist or Photoshop. “The answer is that these products do an incredible job of solving their users’ problems, and their complex interfaces are a key reason for their success.” – Why I love ugly, messy interfaces — and you probably do too

Minimalist UIs that led to complex UX

  • BMW iDrive: The iDrive in-car infotainment control system started with a minimal approach: in the first version, the only control was a turn knob. Later on, due to extensive consumer feedback, 2 extra buttons were added. Now it features 8 dedicated buttons, greatly improving the user experience and driving safety. – iDrive
  • Fitbit Flex: Jesse Weaver examines how the minimalist UI of the Fitbit Flex can put the user experience at risk – When Simplicity Becomes Complexity: 3 Design Lessons From Using a Fitbit
  • The hamburger menu: In the name of minimalism and clean design, moving a mobile app’s navigation into an off-screen menu, called the hamburger menu, can easily cost a good chunk of engagement, as the examples of Zeebox or Facebook show.
  • The overflow menu: it is very similar to the hamburger menu with the added benefit that multiple can be placed on a screen. But “The trouble with overflow menus is that you didn’t actually take anything away, you just obnoxiously obfuscated it.” – Stop the overuse of overflow menus

Zoltan Gocza