Lying and simplifying aren’t the same. In fact, they’re not even friends-in-law. They’re archenemies. That’s right. Think Batman and The Joker, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Glenn Beck and Rahm Emanuel. As designers, it’s essential that we understand this, because our lives are spent shooting for simplification. But far too often in our quest for UI Zen, we fall into the bottomless pit of lies, lies, lies.
A comment to my last case study about lying UIs left me with something to think about. Bruno Abrantes, a Portuguese designer and student, wrote the following:
If the UI abstracts complicated facts from users, causing them to make erroneous assumptions about the application that actually makes their lives simpler, then lie at will I say. This is the basis of software such as iTunes and iPhoto (my poster-child examples): … The user is lied to by the interface, since it doesn’t reflect the actual folder/file hierarchy, but the lie makes her life so much easier it’s totally worth it.
This got me thinking “Hang on a second – is lying a good thing sometimes? Is simplification one of its many forms?”
And let me tell you that while Bruno has an excellent point, and one I’ll try to expand on here, I’ve come to the conclusion that lying and simplifying aren’t the same. In fact, they’re not even friends-in-law. They’re archenemies. That’s right. Think Batman and The Joker, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Glenn Beck and Rahm Emanuel.
As designers, it’s essential that we understand this, because our lives are spent shooting for simplification. But far too often in our quest for UI Zen, we fall into the bottomless pit of lies, lies, lies. So how do we know when we’re lying and when we’re simplifying?
Zoom In, Zoom Out
Let’s say I’m trying to figure out where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is. Well, Google Maps tells me this:
There it is! I’m so close to it I can see the building’s weird shape, the names of the businesses and streets around it, and I can tell it’s way close to the water. Cool. Now, let’s zoom out a whole bunch – Google gives us this:
The map just got a whole lot simpler and abstract in order to cover a lot greater area, but I still know where my desired destination is. This is because the map remained true to the lay of the land. The Hall of Fame is still in Cleveland, and Cleveland is still northeast of Texas. They still told me the truth. That’s right. Their screen is lie-free, and that’s why I can still get to where I want to go.
Cut the Fat
However, Google filtered out a great deal of irrelevant information. They didn’t tell me the whole truth. Why? Well, because honestly, I don’t need it, and if I had it – all of it, street names and company names for the whole U.S. – the map would become one useless mass of black text. So instead, they presented me with a minimal, but still accurate representation of the info I needed. That’s called simplifying. It’s kinda groovy.
So how do we know what to keep and what to chuck? Google figured it out – they still make the Hall of Fame’s address, phone number, and directions, quite easy to get to. They know why I came to their site in the first place, and that’s essential.
If we know our users, then we can get them what they need and get all the other stuff out of the way. It’s a great way to make friends. If we don’t know our users, the odds of cutting out something essential to them or adding something irrelevant grow quite a bit, and that’s a great way to get your car keyed.
One great example of a man who knew what needed to go is our friend Jared, from those great Subway ads. He knew that,
Now that’s simplification! When we cut the right stuff from our UIs, we can feel the difference, and so can our users. Simplification leads to focus and increased efficiency. Users of good, lean UIs can go farther faster (at least at work) and have more fun while they’re at it.
On the other hand, lying can often begin through a lack of knowledge about our users and their priorities. It takes a whole lot of work to get to the bottom of what users need, and we may be tempted to take shortcuts. Sometimes, in the name of elegance, simplicity and minimalism we can cut some valuable stuff out. Let the following be a grim reminder of the possible results of such reckless behavior:
Only a designer who knows his or her app’s users will be able to successfully discern between fat and vital organs.
Now, let’s return to Bruno’s comment. He’s absolutely right that the decisions Apple made in iTunes and iPhoto make life easier. They abstract away irrelevant information while leaving what matters – the music, the pictures! This is a great example of simplifying.
One of the most important differences between lying and simplifying is their result. Lies are…well, misleading. They misrepresent information that is essential to the user, and that leads to nothing but frustration. Simplifying is different. Though it may not be explicit about every piece of information, it emphasizes the most important ones and leaves the rest out. This enables users to get more done.
The keys to simplifying without falling into a pit of dirty lies are simple. We need to know the underlying truth we’re trying to represent: the information, process, task, etc. If we don’t, neither will our users when they sit in front of out apps. Second, we need to understand our users’ needs intimately. We must know what they want out of their experience with our software. This will allow our solutions to remain both accurate and simple – an elegant, focused representation of the essential truth.