Design For Simplicity Has Gone Too Far and We Need to Fix It.
The design revolution, sparked by a decade of complicated and labyrinth-like UIs, has resulted in our current worship of minimalism. But now we’ve gone too far. Instead of “make things simpler,” we’ve moved onto “make simple things.” In our pursuit of design simplicity, we’ve lost sight of the larger picture.
We prefer fewer but more powerful choices. We prefer likes instead of comments. We prefer minimalism over a library of actions.
As a consequence, our applications now lack depth. Depth, which is different from but often confused with complexity, is a design element that we desperately need. Depth is what lets a professional artist create a beautiful flyer with the same Microsoft Office application that a second grader uses to create her first banner. Depth brings a sense of accomplishment, an increase in utility, and a very real feel of mastery. Users of deep products feel a sense of loyalty with the application, wherein the mastery of the product becomes a part of who they are and what they can do.
How then do we bring back depth into our designs without needless complexity? Is it even possible in the first place?
For that, we need look no further than in the fields of both education and gaming. One design philosophy that both game designers and teachers have is the concept of flow channels. In the gaming industry specifically, game designers know this as the graph that indicates the stage of difficulty versus the amount of experience the user has accrued. Too hard and players give up. Too easy and they tune out due to boredom.
Likewise, no experienced high school teacher would start the school year with how to manipulate imaginary numbers: that would be too difficult and risk tuning students out with frustration. Yet they also can’t make the course too easy with simple arithmetic because that would just bore students instead. In the end, instructors and game designers want the material to start easy but get progressively harder in a constant and manageable pace. A successful curriculum, like a good game, would see the chart rendered into a wave function:
Games and teachers have known about this design philosophy for decades due to their product’s necessity in maintaining audience interest, but this concept is critical for every single product: technical or not. It is easy to see how this applies to products with complicated UIs or complex professional functions. In fact, that is what sparked our century’s interest in design in the first place. But the lower end of the spectrum has been neglected and UX designers have taken things to the extreme. Instead of adopting a progressive difficulty curve and lowering the graph intercept, they’ve gone to the mindset of “simplify everything” with an endless horizontal line.
Complexity is not bad.
As long as it’s introduced subtly and in a gradual manner, it stands as a natural byproduct of knowledge and usage. Complexity when done right means more variety, more impact, and more depth. For a product, this means a greater value proposition and larger usability. For a user, this means a more powerful product.
The difficulty in accomplishing this is that it requires designers to create an artificial and progressive workflow process. By pushing users through a voluntary funnel, designers can naturally lead more curious users into exploring more creative uses by giving them the tools to do so. The process itself should naturally introduce features one by one, with each additional introduction bestowing the user new skills and abilities.
This is why designers need to rethink how they perceive their users. In addition to characterizing user personas as a niche with its specific demographic wants and needs, an additional consideration should be made for how that demographic learns.
Currently, presenting tidbits and trivia is the most common method of products attempting to do this. Unfortunately, most of the time these efforts are either ignored by the user because they’re served on loading screens, or are reduced to bare factual details that grant no value. The loading screen is too short a process for introducing deep functionality. Even with the best attention-grabbing graphics, loading screen real estate is at most suited for event awareness or the simplest of game facts.
At this point, some of you might scratch your heads. The act of designing a funneling process seems incredibly difficult. If even such a popular game as Fallout Shelter cannot perfect it (though the rest of its channel flow is pretty well done), maybe it’s not the worth the trouble to consider: especially when the investment in design seems so mammoth and the goal so hard to measure even if done right. If my product is neither recreational nor educational, perhaps I can afford to proceed without this thinking… right?
Every Product is By Nature Educational
From the mere fact that every product must be used for the first time, each and every single product has to possess a way for the users to learn how to handle it. This by nature means that all products must be able to teach their users. For centuries, we achieved this through manuals. Even now, many things that we use still come with one: whether it be virtual or physical.
And that should not come as a surprise. Designers already know this and incorporate this into the UX through elements that build user discovery: constraints, signifiers, and other mechanisms like forcing functions. These are all great tools for what I think is the ultimate goal of depth and designing a channel flow: affordance discovery. At it’s simplest, affordance discovery is designing for users to find out how they can get new uses out of existing or new features. In context with a channel flow funnel, affordance discovery is the mechanism to subtly present new cases and usage to the user.
One great and simple example I found lie in the smartphone application Clean Master. Advertised specifically as a way to free up smartphone RAM, the application begins with a very simple UI that displays a headboard with some basic commands.
Due to its marketing and name however, the user naturally just wants to use the application to remove the junk files. Easily enough, simple discovery and signifiers allow the user to find this functionality through the representation of the trashcan. A simple clicks brings us to the next step, in where the application provides appropriate feedback to the user but simplifies the necessary input to a very simple and direct “Clean Junk” call-to-action at the bottom.
Where affordance discovery and the user design funnel begins is in the 3rd and last photo, where the user has already accomplished his main goal. At this stage, the user has already completed his desired action: but instead of returning to the initial starting page, he is led to one that displays some of the other functionalities of the application.
These additional functionalities are in-line with exactly the type of services that the user persona would find of interest. By displaying it after the application has already fulfilled the user’s initial goal, the presentation of the material in no way obstructs from the original purpose. Single-goal users will at this point end the application, satisfied that they’ve accomplished their desire. But those more curious will voluntarily continue and be led to discovering the application’s additional functionalities.
That is the goal of a channel flow funnel. It allows users with flat needs to complete their objective with no impedance, but also voluntarily gives those curious and wiling to learn additional functionality in a nonintrusive way. With each product being unique to itself however, the best methods of affordance discovery and their flow funnel will differ. In those times of design formation, ask the same questions as would a teacher or game designer: “How can I get them interested in the next step?”