Don’t simplify the UX, curate!
Jason Toth, Former Experience Design Director
Within the design profession, terms like "synthesize, reduce, minimize, and simplify" symbolize one of the core tenets to improved usability and interaction design. Taken at face value, simplification is a worthy tenet to embrace, and the UX community holds this idea in high regard because we believe it results in greater functionality and consumption of content for the user.
However, the negative connotation and misapplication of exercises associated with simplification often put UX designers in a defensive position with clients and content writers. As a result of this, I have been trying to position this aspect of the design process within the context of content curation rather than in the context of content elimination. In the end, elimination or synthesis of content is likely inevitable regardless of the exercise, but I think the notion of curating content is a more accurately framed description of our role as user experience designers. I have also found that this approach promotes positive communication while building immeasurable trust and confidence with our clients.
To accomplish simplification, user experience designers employ a variety of design exercises to make the UI more efficient. We limit the amount of choices available to a user, reduce the size of content and site copy, progressively disclose UI options, and synthesize unruly navigation elements. Essentially though, these are just exercises in numerical reduction.
The same exercise holds true for other design professions. The need to take too much stuff and put it in too small a space is a familiar issue and not limited to user experience designers. Architects are faced with the issue of laying out 5000 s.f. of programming into a 4000 s.f. building footprint; film editors have to determine where they can cut minutes out of a film to meet the running time mandated by the studio; and industrial designers battle how to increase the life of a battery while making the shell smaller. So, the concept of simplification is certainly not without merit or use.
However, one of the unfortunate by-products of these exercises is that design has a tendency to elevate the exercise of reduction to a meaningless trope. It becomes a default exercise blindly performed out of numerical necessity. Or even worse, that the exercise has become so common that we consider the very process of elimination equivalent to good or usable design.
I won't argue that our ability to identify discrepancies between a site's message and a site's content is a critical UX skill. However, without a broader, curatorial framework around the act of simplfication, UX designers risk being perceived as callous content hackers, indifferent to the client's goals around messaging and brand.
I view the exercise of simplification within the context of curation because I feel it more accurately describes the overall UX interest in messaging and content. Curation implies a purposeful selection and pairing of content in order to provide a collective meaning. It implies that elimination is not performed to reach a numerical threshold but for the greater purpose of defining a point of view. Curation serves the goal of collecting an appropriate amount of content through which a meaningful message is crafted. The idea of curation does not disregard the necessary exercise of simplifying the user experience, it simply provides a lens through which this exercise is more aptly framed.
This approach also helps establish the role of the designer as a co-curator, or one who is more interested in being a content generator than a content arbiter. The more we are able to demonstrate that our role is to help define, create, and frame a message, the less chance our suggestions will be seen as an unsympathetic judgment on a set of client's requirements/content.
It would be great to hear any thoughts and criticisms of this approach and to have a discussion on the value this idea may provide. To incite more discussion, I have included a few practical ideas for introducing this into your discussions with clients.
- Focus on positive language. Try to reduce the amount of negatively charged terms in your conversation. Some example phrases are:
- This might be a more appropriate pairing of content. What do you think of this site area concentrating solely on these?
- Out of this range of content, which objects best reflect our message?
- In order to ensure this content is visible when someone first visits the site, we'll need to keep this text area to 3 lines of text. Which statement allows us to make this possible?
- Guide the difficult discussions around elimination toward the goal of establishing or creating a collective message. By pushing the focus of the discussion to the attitude, tone, and purpose of the site, the extreme attention given to any individual elements diminishes. This helps reduce some of the anxiety around eliminating any one element because the context is always understood within the larger messaging goal.
- Think inclusion rather than exclusion. Frame the exercise in terms of related objects and content that are well paired. By identifying useful combinations rather than focusing on the objects that are causing disruption, the elimination of less successful pairings occurs naturally.
- Having a point of view is necessary and required. Encourage clients to define their point of view early and clearly and if they are struggling in this endeavor, make suggestions to help them craft this point of view.