I’m with simple

The move towards beautiful and elegant online user experiences is simplicity, and Nic Ricketts is beguiled.

Amazingly it seems that despite all these years of the internet the user experience has not really improved in some areas.

When you buy something online from a major brand it’s usually fairly straightforward to navigate the site. These online retail experiences reflect the physical presence of such brands on the high street and maintain their brand promise at what is increasingly the major point-of-sale.

Why is it then that such sites are far less frustrating to use than those offered by government departments? It’s because they have to be. They need to be easy-to-use when a competitor’s offering is just a click away. The web hasn’t actually made consumers more fickle but certainly it’s made it easier for them to be so.

Around ten years ago we had to put up with badly built sites in almost every area. ‘Print is dead’ they said with the result that every graphic designer threw him or herself into a self-taught course on designing websites. Usability was at the bottom of the pile in terms of importance.

Today if not usability then at least functionality gets a higher billing. What companies once regarded as a cheap way to present their wares to the market has become something they now believe can deliver customers. The advent of social networking has changed online repositories of product description into sites with intuitive pathways and customer journeys.

So, how do you learn about usability? Much of it is common sense but it does necessitate vision and good decision-making when first commissioning a site. Testing is also key and if the site is flat enough – and flexible enough – then changes can be made easily. But it really boils down to understanding who your customer is and placing yourself in their shoes. Once you’ve done that then there a few books out there to help you and one of the best yet is Simple and usable – web, mobile and interaction design by Giles Colborne.

Like Steve Krug’s seminal Don’t make me think, this book is a slim volume, and rightly so for a primer on how to eschew obfuscation and deliver more from less.

But while Krug’s book is full of humorous ‘ahah’ moments, Giles Colborne’s Simple and usable takes a more forensic view of user expectations and perceptions. In this sense it shows just how far online marketing has matured in the 11 years since Krug’s book was published in its first edition. But equally, how so little has changed in our understanding of the way people buy, behave and interact online.

Colborne splits the task of creating simplicity – and in so doing, enhancing usability in web design – into four strategies entitled Remove, Organise, Hide and Replace. To illustrate how this works he redesigns a physical item we’re all familiar with, the DVD remote.

This immediately hits the right tone. For anyone like me who never resorts to RTFM (Reading The F*****g Manual), the intense frustration DVD devices cause me – and continue to cause me – has almost resulted in violence, albeit directed at inanimate objects. It’s always when you’re in a hurry, caught on the hop, or late for an appointment that you remember to record something and find yourself in a real pickle dealing with the vagaries of an AV equipment designer’s mind. The upshot and thought bubble hanging over you reads ‘But why won’t you let me do that?’

It’s the same with websites. It seems developers can’t help themselves adding more features or bells and whistles that work against user immersion in the online world. This is probably because of a disconnect between specifiers, designers and developers. While most savvy online retailers have usually got the user experience nailed, their aspirations for online behaviour is controlled by branding and routes to market. But in the B2B world the call-to-action is not so pointed or obvious.

Reading Colborne’s words about complexity I was reminded of those terrible PowerPoint presentations we’ve all sat through where the amount of data on each slide was almost a firing offence. Many sites still overcomplicate, or frustrate your flow, forcing you to make unnecessary choices. More importantly, working against their own business objectives.

Colborne distinguishes between different types of user, breaking them down into Experts, Willing adopters and Mainstreamers, and describing their attitude to technology and the motivations that drive them. He takes anecdotal examples from the likes of Apple and Pixar, and the way these companies think laterally about the user experience.

It’s clear that putting yourself at the user’s POV is key but users don’t buy on intuition alone, you still have to lead them to make the decisions you want them to make. Simple enough you’d think, but where the book shines is in telling you how to do that – in a clean way – without appearing condescending or controlling. Colborne manages to make his points with a lightness of touch that can be directly applied online.

Simple and usable is required reading for anyone involved in – or interested in – web design and usability, and that’s pretty much anyone with a browser at the end of a broadband connection. I read it at one sitting and just let Colborne’s engaging – and unarguably persuasive – prose flow into me.

This tightly written insightful book will get you thinking about your own site, and the sites of your customers. But, more than that, it might even lead you to simplify a lot more in your business interactions, whether they are with partners, suppliers or customers.


About Nic Ricketts…

Nic Ricketts has 25 years marketing experience and has run two successful advertising and integrated marketing agencies. He now heads up a brand consultancy – 1st Objective Ltd – specialising in optimising marketing services to support business objectives and create sales growth.

Tel – 01628 472755 Email - nic@1stObjective.com