Why simplicity in design starts with documentation

July 13, 2020 | Reading time 5 minutes

Designing cumbersome products is easy: add features without thinking and you’re done. That’s all it takes.

The opposite is more challenging. It requires problem solving skills or as Massimo Vignelli said: “A sophisticated mind would know how to design things that are complex but not complicated. An ignorant mind will design things which are complicated but without any complexity.” I admire Massimo and if you’re interested in design, you should go and read more about his work.

This blog is about designing products that are not complicated. It’s also about redesigning products, because adding features can turn your product into a snake pit.

Take a look at Microsoft Word. In its core it’s a tool for writing text and that shouldn’t be hard to make. But Word became complicated. Over the years the number of features increased. I bet you don’t know all the features or where to find them. If you can, you must be one of the die hard Word users. It seems that designing a feature rich text editor is tough.

I don’t envy the designers at Microsoft. They demo great concepts, but a large part of their user base is averse to change. That it is why designing a complex product from scratch is easier. There’s no legacy holding you back.

Keeping it simple

If adding features in a non complicated way is difficult, why do companies keep doing it? Why not create a new product for those features?

Two common reasons for adding features are competition and customer demand. The same customers who abandon your product because they think it is bloated. Humans are the worst customers you can get. On the other hand they force designers to do a better job.

Before adding a new feature ask yourself: “Why?” How does it benefit the user? Does it attract more customers? Can you achieve the same goal by adjusting an existing feature?

Remember, people don’t know what they want in a product. Sure they know their requirements, at least I hope, but that’s not a guarantee for the right choice.

Take this example. People tend to say that more clicks is equal to a lesser user experience. I doubt that’s true and advocate the opposite as long as the clicks are a natural flow. Great designed tools let users think less. Even if it requires more clicks or taps.

Adding more does not equal adding more

In a world that you can design yourself, you can decide that new features aren’t necessary. Unfortunately, reality is different. Sometimes you’re forced to add more features to a product. Maybe there’s a growing customer base or new legislation. Technically this doesn’t have to be problem, the challenge is in the design. You want your product to remain as easy to use as the current version.

For every addition your first questions should be:

  1. How does this new feature relate in our product?
  2. Is it a primary or secondary functionality?
  3. Can it be combined with another function or vice versa?

Take your company website as an example. You want a place for introducing your team. The easiest solution is adding a separate navigation item and page for the team. But why not add it as a section to the about page?

The about page is one of the most visited pages on a website and good chance that people see your team when it is included on that page. Another option is placing a button on the about page which takes you to the team page. This guides people through the website without them having to choose where to start. The side effect is that you control what users see first. You control the user experience.

Documentation first

As you might notice, I don’t want people to think about how something works. It should be simple or as Massimo said, not complicated. People want to use a website or app without thinking. Let alone read a manual.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make user documentation. It’s even one of the first things you should do. I used to wait with documentation until the end of the development process, but altered that. These days it’s part of my design process and it helps me discover flaws early on.

Writing documentation forces you to describe the use of your product and words are unforgiving. Either people understand the explanation or they don’t. And having to read it three times means you’re done.

Documentation makes you rethink your design choices and you shouldn’t underestimate this step. It’s a tool for testing the complexity of your design. By setting rules with regard to the number of words and bullets you’re forced to keep it short. Needing more words might indicate a feature is too complex. The numbers vary per product, but less is better because people read badly.

Simplicity starts with thinking so that people don’t have to think.

You can read more about writing documentation in the post: UX writing and why text matters.