Simplify Your UX Through Reduction

July 20, 2015

Creating a simple user experience requires a method. It’s not enough to say that you’ll create a simple design, that you’ll design like Apple, or that you’ll just remove enough stuff until it feels right. Creating a simple experience that looks easy, feels easy, and actually is easy is quite complicated.

My search for a framework for simple design started when I began studying the work of John Maeda, a computer scientist, graphic designer, and former President of Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity presents ten laws that constitute simplicity, and he expounds on how each law contributes to things feeling simple. Inspired by his work, I took a few of his laws and created a three-step method that you can apply to design thinking. I can only hope that my distillation of his ten laws down to three steps would make him proud.

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“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.”—John Maeda

One can apply the following step-by-step method to any problem that requires solutions thinking:

  1. Reduce all but what’s required.
  2. Organize what remains.
  3. Prioritize the organization into a clear hierarchy.

In this first article in my series of three articles, I’ll focus on the first step toward achieving a simple user experience: reduction.

“Do first things first, and second things, not at all.”—Peter Drucker


Reducing a design to its core elements is often the most difficult task to accomplish on any project—especially when you’re trying to convince stakeholders to release their grip on legacy artifacts such as content, brand elements, design treatments, or whatever. It is also the most vital part of any simplification process. Reduction is the foundation upon which we ultimately render simple user experiences.

UX designers must address reduction in two distinct ways:

  1. Remove elements. Thoughtfully remove elements to reduce a system to its essentials—without sacrificing usability.  
  2. Reduce choice. Balance user pathways through careful consideration of the choices you present to the user.

Now, let’s look into each of these parallel tracks toward reduction in greater depth.

1. Remove Elements

Removing information means you must force a project’s stakeholders to distill their message and articulate with precision their presentation and communications. The natural tendency for most humans is to keep things until they fall apart—or until they are clearly no longer necessary or effective. Effective user experiences, however, demand a more proactive curation of artifacts.

Removing information from any given page or screen—whether design treatments, words, colors, or anything else that demands the user’s attention—reduces the page’s cognitive load and helps users to easily scan and consume information and make choices. When considering design treatments, always ask: is this design, or is this decoration? Does this little bit of information or this treatment have purpose? You’ll be surprised to find that, if you take this approach with every design decision you make, you’ll soon have a considerably lighter, more efficient, and friction-free design.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

As UX designers, we must keep design elements only if they have value to the business or the user—that is, a purpose for their existence. Here are a few ways in which to achieve this:

  • Begin with mobile. Design for the smallest viewport at the beginning of your content strategy or at the wireframing stage. Force stakeholders to make decisions on content inclusion or exclusion from the beginning, and get them used to setting priorities and sacrificing unnecessary elements.
  • Practice reduction together in workshops. Collaborative workshops that bring together different content owners can help force consensus on what stays and what goes.
  • Tell the data story. Even the most compelling arguments of a UX veteran who is citing best practices on simplicity can lose in the reduction battle. But what can win the room is not your opinion, but the unbiased reality of data from user interviews. Discuss themes from user feedback, reveal findings from analytics—bounce rates and traffic data—and talk about the keywords on which they’re indexed and which search terms are driving quality traffic. Show, don’t tell.
  • Expose reduction in the wild. Show how a comparator—not necessarily a competitor, but a parallel entity facing a similar problem—succeeds with less and how others fail with more. Talk to stakeholders in real terms about how clutter kills conversions. Explain how others make more money, acquire more leads, or achieve other key performance indicators (KPIs) with simpler designs and less noisy content. If stakeholders don’t believe you—and they don’t believe their users—they should at least believe their peers working in other companies who are poised to take their market share.
Cartoon: I think it needs a little more pizzazz.

2. Reduce Choice

In addition to removing elements, UX designers also need to present a proper balance of options to the user.

“Some freedom is undeniably more beneficial than no freedom, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that more freedom is better than some.”—Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz calls this idea the “Paradox of Choice.” The concept describes how the number of choices we present can affect people positively or negatively, how the choices we offer can enable or disable people’s ability to choose, and ultimately, how different choices can affect people’s overall satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Today’s world perpetually presents more and more choices, as well as additional controls. Many assume that freedom equates to value and, in the digital world, conversions. However, some interesting and somewhat counterintuitive results from studies have shown that an abundance of options isn’t necessarily good for business. Consider these findings from Schwartz’s research:

  • People today have more choices than 30 years ago, but are less happy overall.
  • People who have fewer options in life prove to be more content and happy.
  • Having too much choice gets in the way of overall happiness, satisfaction with choices, and ultimately, conversions.
  • The more options you present, the more opportunity cost you create. (Opportunity cost is the perceived loss of potential gain when someone chooses one option over alternatives.)

According to Schwartz, our culture “sanctifies freedom of choice so profoundly that the benefits of infinite options seem self-evident.” However, while the world constantly provides us with more options everywhere, what we in fact need is the opposite: a reduction of choices.

Consider the series of studies conducted by Sheena Iyengar, Professor at Columbia School of Business and renowned researcher on choice and culture. In one study, she set up two displays in a grocery store. One display offered six varieties of gourmet jam to shoppers; the other, 24 varieties of jam. While the second display showcasing 24 jams attracted more traffic, the smaller display with just six jams resulted in ten times more purchases.

Another study by Iyengar, on employee participation in retirement plans, produced similar results. When a company offered several mutual-fund options, fewer employees participated than when the company presented fewer mutual funds—even though, by failing to participate, employees missed out on the company’s matching contribution.

Not only does greater choice often increase people’s dissatisfaction, it frequently increases their susceptibility to error as well. The next time you are thinking about adding that extra button to your Web site, placing another primary call to action on a page, or presenting eight to ten social-sharing icons on a blog, consider these facts:

  • More decisions require more effort.
  • More decisions make mistakes more likely to occur.
  • Psychological consequences of mistakes become more severe. (There is additional anxiety when people consider the alternatives not chosen.)

What’s more, all of this is true even when users would gain maximal value by sifting through additional alternatives.

I’m not suggesting that Whole Foods should offer just one sort of jam or that Fidelity should offer just a single mutual fund. Such an extreme could trigger single-option aversion, creating a scenario in which no options are satisfactory and none is chosen. The lesson here for UX designers is that too much control can be just as detrimental to a user experience as not enough control.

Know Your Audience

Circumstances do exist in which additional freedom of choice is more beneficial than less choice. Schwartz suggests two exceptions to the general rule:

  1. People who know a certain domain well often benefit from a large variety of choices—for example, a financial advisor who is customizing a financial product for an advisee or a carpenter selecting a particular kind of lumber for a special job. In the two Iyengar studies I mentioned earlier, you can probably assume that the majority of the people participating in the study were not domain experts on mutual funds or gourmet-flavored jams.
  2. When options are well categorized and a proper taxonomy hides abundance of choice, users do not experience paralysis of choice. By presenting additional options only upon a user’s request or hiding choices under parent categories, we can make the complex feel simpler. (I’ll have more to say on this in the second part of my series on simplicity, which is about organization.)

The lesson here is that designing for choice is relative—depending on what you’re designing and who you’re designing it for. Complex applications for power users clearly require a different mindset than marketing Web sites whose purpose is to attract people who are not yet familiar with a product or service. One size doesn’t fit all for any design treatment, but knowing your audience will empower you to understand what choices to consider, how many of them to present, and how to present an organizational structure properly, so it works well for users.

“The trick is to find the middle ground—the ‘sweet spot’—that enables people to benefit from variety and not be paralyzed by it. Choice is good, but there can be too much of a good thing.”—Barry Schwartz

Where Do We Go from Here?

The choices we present to users must be the things that matter—and nothing more. Adding choices because of a designer’s lack of certainty about what is important or a lack of focus in a design results in a suboptimal solution, frustrated users, and customers that are less loyal. A truly efficient and rewarding user experience removes choices that don’t matter and leaves the user with just those that do. So how do we accomplish this?

  • Clearly map out personas and specific persona-group goals. Prioritize the goals for each persona group into primary, secondary, and tertiary categories, then apply this prioritization to your design. Create one primary call to action per screen, ensure that secondary calls to action are visibly secondary, and throw away tertiary calls to action altogether. For example, people don’t come to a news article to share it; they come to read it.
  • Create user flows to understand when users need to make certain choices. Is it realistic to ask people to convert at their first touchpoint? Is it wasteful to present educational content in a deep validation section of a software purchase experience? The answers to these questions depend on your business and your users. Map out the user flows for each primary goal and business objective for each major audience group. Then, map where decisions get made inside the Education Validation Conversion funnel.
  • Hide options where appropriate. Take as much care in categorizing your calls to action as you would for any other taxonomy—that is, group elements, conceal children behind parents, and prioritize. For example, you could group similar options under a parent category, in the same way you’d conceal XXS, XS, S, M, L, XL, and XXL options in a Size drop-down list in an ecommerce experience.
  • Use progressive disclosure. Don’t give an overview of the choices at every level. Instead, give users just enough information to make a decision about their current choice, then let them dive into other details on subsequent screens.
  • Design for your most important audiences. Consider the impact each choice has on your most strategically important audiences. At some point, you have to decide on a design’s target audience. Are the users who require a specific option, but make up only 5% of your customers important enough to muddy the experience for the 95% of users who don’t? Is the cutoff 10% or 20%? The answer lies in your data and your business goals. While this may sound counterintuitive to some, ignoring some user groups altogether can improve the user experience a great deal for the users who impact your business the most.

In the real world, we aren’t always able to reduce every page or screen to just one or two choices. But we can minimize the number of choices to a meaningful set of options, and we can be more thoughtful about applying the criteria that I’ve highlighted in this article when designing choices for users. That degree of scrutiny—in concert with the method for simple design that I presented earlier—will result in a more minimal user experience. 

SVP, Experience Design at Mad*Pow

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Brady BonusCreating inspiring user experiences has been Brady’s focus for the last twenty years. Brady draws on his past experience as an artist, visual designer, Web developer, and UX architect to lead Boston Interactive’s design team in creating thoughtful, simple, and delightful user experiences. To ensure success from both the user and business perspectives, Brady believes in applying techniques for collaboration—as well as a method for simplification—to every project. Brady is a graduate of the University of Michigan where he earned his degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in illustration, design, and sculpture.  Read More

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