Simplified User Interface

by Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp — all-in-one help authoring tool

Onboarding users to a new and complex interface can be demanding. Too much information is overwhelming for any person and makes it challenging to focus on the essential functionality.

Besides, as a rule, software updates happen frequently. Such updates overcomplicate the work with documentation in the software industry for technical writers. There is a solution to these challenges without constantly updating the supporting content — a simplified user interface!

A simplified user interface (SUI) is a minimalistic visual representation of a software interface, excluding unimportant elements.

So how to make one for your product?

The number one priority is to plan! Spend time planning the product all through. What features do you need, how will a user interact with those, and the content for the software.

Once this is decided, go through and remove anything that isn’t vital to the usage of the software.

After the final feature set is defined, agree on the set with responsible parties and ensure no changes until the next version. This is because once a new feature is introduced into an existing mid-build product, there will be a disconnect somewhere in the flow. If new features are deemed necessary after release, review the entire product and decide how this new feature can be included with minimal disruption to the use.

The best interface will always be no interface. The challenge is making the interface intuitive enough for people to accomplish their goals.

Appropriate simplicity is a result of prioritization. The best simplifications are focused on the things people genuinely need. So the first step is to develop a realistic view of the customer base and what matters to them. You may also streamline requirements by purposely choosing a more targeted customer base.

Additional features don’t have to erode the simplicity of an experience, but compromises in either prioritization or implementation surely will.

Here’s what can be done to simplify an existing interface:

  • Remove or hide features. The more features you have, the more complexity you have. Use menus, tabs, dropdowns, etc. to make features available, but not seen until needed.
  • Tightly align the user’s mental model with the product’s conceptual model. The closer you get, the simpler it will seem.
  • Smart defaults. Have them. Make them visible.
  • Distribute functionality to the right platform. Decide where functionality should logically be located: device, desktop, web. Don’t cram everything onto one platform unless it makes sense to do so.
  • Use visuals. Look for sentences and labels and figure out whether you need them. If you see descriptions that would be better elaborated in dedicated help or FAQs, take them out and link to that instead. If it must be inline, could it be shown more succinctly in an image or diagram than words? If there’s the text trying to get you to look somewhere else, maybe the options are in the wrong spot.
  • Clean the terminology. If there are similar descriptions in different areas, pick the best and use it everywhere. Take how your customers describe what they’re trying to do, and make the design reflect those terms. Once you’ve done these, get down to the smallest conceivable description for the current context. This will end up simplifying both translations and help documentation.
  • Design. Is there a lot of nesting or divider lines? See if the sections are organized meaningfully, and then eliminate as much line noise as possible to keep those sections distinct. Play with text headers, solid-colored boxes, or indenting to see if those work better.
  • Icons. These can very quickly become a crutch for small spaces if allowed to grow beyond a small set. Your interface might be in trouble if more than 1–2 icons have arrows in them or if the interface looks like a bag of Skittles from afar. Evaluate where they’re used today and see if there are alternate representations for the behavior they embody (such as information, or action, or current context).
  • Colors. Reduce your palette. Try to use one or two colors. Color carries a connotation, so warm colors like red or orange will always seem urgent and should be used selectively.

Test it. Once you’ve done all this, be sure to run it by users. New users will show as to whether it is understandable. Existing users will help you discover whether you’ve overlooked any particular uses of the current design and hitches they may encounter adjusting to a new design. Keep in mind that no one likes re-learning something they already know how to use, so there will always be pressure to keep it as is.

All points above are provisional until you define what type of simplicity you want to optimize for. There is cognitive simplicity, workflow simplicity, physical interaction simplicity, etc… And only your design context can suggest which forms of simplicity will deliver the most net value.

There’s no single practice or design that can address all UI and UX simplification. Much of that comes over time through metrics that can help validate existing designs with the end-user.

Have a nice day!

Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp.com — best online documentation tool for SaaS vendors