Design/UX

Let's Talk About KISS

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Image courtesy of Rolling Stone.

No, not that KISS. In the design world, KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I hear the word “simple” thrown around a lot in meetings and discussions regarding design. Often it’s accompanied by words like “minimalism” and “clean”.

However, “simple” isn’t as easy as using a fresh color palette, a lot of white space, and an Apple-esque sans-serif font.


Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.…You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential. -Jony Ive


Crafting a simple experience for the user doesn’t make my job easier, it makes it more complex. It removes the responsibility from the user and places it squarely on the designer’s shoulders. It requires thorough research, planning, and testing.

Why is simplicity important?

1. Simplicity appeals to our short attention spans.

We decide in as little as 50 milliseconds whether or not a site is appealing to us. If the site passes the first test ...

The Nielsen Norman group reports that “the first 10 seconds of the page visit are critical for users' decision to stay or leave. If the Web page survives this first … 10-second judgment, users will look around a bit. However, they're still highly likely to leave during the subsequent 20 seconds.”

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Chart courtesy of Nielsen Norman

2. Simplicity reduces cognitive friction.

Cognitive friction is every micro movement or thought that slows your user down. Things like cluttered visuals, inconsistencies in your interface, unnecessary actions, distractions or new/unfamiliar functions. Every fraction of a second that a user has to spend thinking about how or why they’re doing something on their website is a moment you might lose them permanently. There is a whole slew of ways to avoid cognitive friction on your website, but I’ll save that for another post.

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If you were shopping for diapers, which site do you find less overwhelming? The first with dueling navigation, confusing link names and tons of images is a lot to take in. The second site is much more focused and approachable, and requires less "brain power".

3. Simplicity reduces mistakes

The more difficult something is to use, the more mistakes we’re going to make. The more mistakes we make, the less likely we are to complete the task, or return to it later.

I recently helped a client simplify their check-out process. Things like text alignment, field label position and validation messaging all play a huge role in conversion. Don’t help the user fix the mistake, help them avoid it in the first place.

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Multi-column layouts mean users may miss important fields and trigger validation. Why? Our eyes naturally scan from top to bottom of the page, missing (or purposefully avoiding) things on the right of the page. Simplify by stacking and aligning your field forms.

4. Simplicity leads users to the end goal

If users have to think too much, they’re not going to make it from Point A to End Goal. They’re going to bail out somewhere in between. Thinking is too hard, and someone else’s website is probably easier to use than yours.

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I googled “buy a hammer” and both of these pages came up. Which site are you more likely to purchase a hammer from, based on this first page in the process alone? Why?

The first requirement of an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use.

- Nielsen Norman Group


Simplicity in Practice

Overwhelmed by the idea of simplifying your website? Completely understandable. Simplification is, ironically, not easy.

Here are a few practical ideas to get your wheels spinning:

  • Have clear site goals. What do you want your users to do and how are you going to help them get there?
  • Every time you add a feature, ask yourself if this feature is supporting your site goal?
  • Strip down the content. Only include what helps users move toward the goal.
  • Create/maintain hierarchy in your content and visuals. Make smart use of color, typography and size to show what is most important.
  • Make good use of white space. And white space doesn’t need to literally be white.
  • Have a clear, organized, and consistent site navigation. Group like things together when possible.
  • Avoid ambiguous actions and icons that users haven’t encountered before. There is a time and place to try something innovative, but the last step of your check-out form may not be the best place for that. ;)
  • Progressive disclosure: Guide the user through the experience. Hide actions/tasks until the user needs to complete them.
  • Use guided actions: make suggestions, use smart defaults, etc. (For example, instead of asking a user if they are male or female, find out what the majority of your demographic is. If it’s female, have the female option pre-selected.)

Recommended Reading:

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

The Complexity of Simplicity by Luke Wroblewski

Erin Fike
Graphic Designer
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