Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Simple Design is Good Design

The sites through which we mostly experience the web are more complex than they need to be. In addition to the basic necessities—a site logo, main navigation, page title, content area, and one or two calls to action—the web pages we spend most of our time reading are overloaded with advertisements, social media widgets, and lures to ostensibly "related" content. We've gotten so used to this that we barely take notice when the page's main content amounts to far less than the extras. A fresh look (try squinting) at the page reveals no sense of order or priority to the information it contains. That's bad design.

Ironically, all the extras often vouch for the professionalism of a website. After all, anyone can write an article, but not everyone has advertising relationships or can afford to pay for custom programming of all those fancy widgets. When we see more than just words on a page, we think, "this comes from something bigger than me, something I can trust." But bad design flourishes on the web when everyone thinks like that, such that if you were to actually do it better, users would be confused or disregard your page because it didn't look like what they were used to. How many designers can attest to this when they hear follow-the-leader requests like, "it's got to look like Facebook," or "that's not how Amazon does it?"

The error in the follow-the-leader mentality is that the leaders can afford to be wrong about design, but the followers can't. Mass media sites receive such huge amounts of traffic that overloading their pages with opportunites to click makes statistical sense. When hundreds of thousands of users access a site on a daily basis, it's guaranteed that just about every link on every page will be clicked at least once. At this level, it doesn't matter if any of that click activity is satisfying to the individual user. This is shock and awe, not special ops. But a site that receives a few hundred visits or less a day—the majority of the web—has no such luxury. One confusing interaction could cost a potential client or customer.

Why do we continue to trust the methods of the mass-media sites? We should know better than that. It's because when it comes to solidly debunking their strategy and providing a better one for our clients, we fall short of a good argument. We—designers, developers, and agencies alike—don't do a good enough job reassuring our clients that following the leader is not only unecessary, but bad for their business. So, for the remainder of this article, I want to dig a bit deeper into two examples of influential but poorly designed sites we're likely to take cues from and then provide a, well, simple plan for staying simple.


Chris Butler | August 24, 2010 5:00 PM
Tom: Amazon abhors you or you abhor Amazon ;-) I get your point, though. Sometimes I do feel like a bit of a slave when I know that the reality is that I'm going to be putting up with the bad design and UX of the "big guys" for a long time to come—if not ever. I'm glad the newsletter resonated with you. Your point about the cheap templates that "follow the leaders" is right, too. This does perpetuate the whole mess by taking a "trickle down" approach to design. It's too bad.

We'll be including this article (and others from the past year) in Volume 2 of our Newfangled Guide to Your Website. Volume 1 is available now. Mark is still working hard on his forthcoming book...details on that when he's ready.

Russ: Thanks for reading! It's amazing that Don't Make Me Think has only needed one revision since it was first written.

Stevie: Glad you liked the article. Stop by next time, too!
Stevie Black | August 19, 2010 9:58 AM
Your diagram of the Amazon information maze shows clearly what we all intuitively know is true. A redesign at this point would be an enormous task - tracking and programming the 301-redirects alone for all the linkbacks to the site and every product page alone would probably blow the budget!

Great article.

Stevie Black
Russ | August 18, 2010 2:15 PM
I love the book "Dont Make Me Think" - one of my favorites as well. I too haver never been a big fan of Amazon's site. I think it is too cluttered and confusing. I am willing to bet a simpler GUI would provide increased sales. I always strive to keep a simple design when building sites. It is also one of the reasons I dont use adsense - I think it cheapens the site by displaying all those ads... I would rather focus on my audience and delivering content.

Great post Chris. I agree with your thoughts...
Tom Charde | August 12, 2010 12:51 PM
Glad I'm not the only one who thinks Amazon is a mess... As an IA & UX enthusiast—and someone who strives to achieve many of the same best practices that Newfangled often writes about—Amazon's page structure abhors me. But as a consumer, I put up with it—simply because there really isn't an alternative. (By "alternative" I mean a site with comparable features, product selection, functionality, 3rd party integration, etc—not just a site that sells the same product.) So it's a love/hate relationship.

The "don't follow the leader" concept is spot on. Though convincing clients of this can sometimes be difficult, I've actually had success using published research and commentaries (like this article) as a tool to help them understand and gain buy-in.

One thing working against this "cause" is the availability of free/cheap ready-made website themes and templates that emulate many of these "leader" sites. The proliferation of sites using these templates only perpetuates the don't-follow-the-leader challenge (i.e. the more sites like this we see, the more accepted that design / practice becomes.) Not all, but the vast majority of these templates are created by people who either aren't qualified in usability, or by those who couldn't care less about it and are just trying to make money off of those who don't know any better. (Or a combination of both.) It's a frustrating reality, and I'm not sure there's a solution—but it's good to at least be aware of the situation.

Anyway, great points Chris. Like many of the posts/articles you and Mark crank out, this one should be made essential reading for web managers, directors, producers, owners and/or anyone else involved in the web development process (including clients, if appropriate). In fact, if someone (wink) were to write a book about such a topic (wink wink), the core message described in this article would make a great chapter.


(PS: I'm sure you'll let us know when these books you mentioned become available, but do you have any idea of a pre-sale date yet?)
Chris Butler | August 9, 2010 8:23 AM
Alex: No, he doesn't right now, but you can check out his webinars on our "webinars" page. As for the graphical cues, I just meant visual details that were not text—even simple ones like lines or colors.

J.T.: I know what you mean. Sure, it's probably not the best thing to do, but it's pretty understandable. I did the same thing when I was freelancing right out of college. It comes from the fairly reasonable notion that people trust "bigness" because they assume it guarantees stability and quality. Of course, that's not always the case, but it will take the average freelancer a while to learn that and gain the confidence they need to be able to compete with other "companies" going for the same job.

Thanks for reading!
J.T. | August 6, 2010 6:16 PM
You wrote:

"When we see more than just words on a page, we think, 'this comes from something bigger than me, something I can trust.'"

and then later

"Bigness, or the appearance of bigness, just should not matter."

So here's my rant:

I'm glad you said this. The first part I know was more about how we trust big sources like the networks on TV. But it ties in to the second part, which you said about a small firm.

One thing that drives me up the wall about designers is that so many of them start "companies" and refer to themselves as "we" even though it's only them. So many freelancers think that it's easier to develop a brand by faking it than to do it based on themselves. It's almost like by calling yourself a company you get to leapfrog right into already being "successful." But if you're just one person, it's much more honest to say "I'm John Smith. I'm a designer" than to say "We're Supercreative Design. We..."

If you're a good designer, you shouldn't have to pretend to be a group.
Alex | August 6, 2010 4:09 PM
Sounds cool. Does Mark have any other articles online? I see he doesn't write much on the site but maybe elsewhere?

Also, in your last comment, what did you mean by "graphical cues"?
Chris Butler | August 6, 2010 10:09 AM
Alex: I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Thanks for the compliment, but I don't know, I think there are many really great writers out there, and I'm kind of new at this comparatively. Right now, I don't have any specific content-expansion plans. We'll be releasing a book anthology of these articles, and Mark has a book on the web development process in the works.
Alex | August 5, 2010 10:56 PM
Great, great article. Really enjoying the themes you've been exploring this year.

@chrbutler you are the best webtech writer out there right now. Any plans to expand your content? Videos? Books?
Chris Butler | August 5, 2010 7:05 PM
First of all, thanks to everyone for such great comments. I've been traveling since Tuesday, so this has been my first opportunity to review what you've all written and respond. So, here goes...

indie_preneur: Exactly. I didn't want to rail too much against advertising and how that applies to the crowding of the page, but I must admit that I'm not a fan. Also, thanks for the feedback about the email. I'll try that out next time.

Ceci: Thanks! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Eileen: The point you made about how the blog format has informed web design in general is a good one. I've noticed this too and wondered how far that can really go. One more technical manifestation of that has been the use of Wordpress as a general CMS—for sites that exceed the typical functionality of a blog—and the difficulties that have arisen as a result. It's definitely indicative of how, I believe, the blog format will be a stepping stone from one era of the web to another. Also, thanks for the Jobs quote—it's a good one.

Nancy: I'm glad you found this helpful. Good luck with your site redesign. Keep me posted on how it's going. I'd love to see a before-and-after.

Elliot: You know, I love the word "rebuke." I don't see it used much on the web, but it's definitely the kind of action we could all be the subject of more often. So, my intent wasn't necessarily to deliver a rebuke, but I'm ok with it being seen as one ;-)

Rick: Interesting. I was sent that same Zeldman article by a friend just the other day after publishing this post! Thanks for sharing it.

Derek, Mark, Adam and Rachel: Now this is an interesting topic. I like the word that Adam chose to describe Craigslist: austere. As far as it's design is concerned, it's clearly been intentionally kept style-less. I'm not sure if "simple" is really the word, though. Looking at Craigslist, I'm impressed with it's scope. It covers a huge amount of territory (not just geographically), but it only uses text and a few linear elements to distribute its information over the page. Frankly, I don't think it's a great example of information design. While it has a clear structure, having no graphical cues to support it makes it fairly weak. But this is where Mark's point comes in: we've grown used to Craigslist in the same way we have Amazon. We know where to go on the page if we're looking for a used bicycle in Raleigh, North Carolina. Because we've spent the last 15 years getting used to how Craigslist works, all the rules are reframed based upon a logic internally consistent to Craigslist alone (and sure, maybe Nielsen). The longevity point is the one I'm left considering the most. It's been around as long as Newfangled has! So, they've "beaten" design in a way.

Ed: Thanks for the compliment. Just today I said to Mark that there's always a new management hurdle to leap. What's true for management is, as you say, true for design. The technology around which we all design is constantly changing, which means the basis upon which we judge how well something works is always changing, too.

Thanks for reading, everyone!
Ed | August 5, 2010 9:10 AM

Fantastic piece.

I've been working in the field for many years now and have found that there is always another hurdle to leap. We've all gotten cozy in a way with how we do things (just as we did with print and other media) on the internet, and it's time to try some new things and push the envelope. Maybe even bring a little white space back into it.

Good design transcends materials.

Rachel | August 5, 2010 8:11 AM
Actually, it's not as if Craigslist's design was what was normal when it launched. Even in 1995 there were ads on pages and more graphics. But it fit into more of a portal category and I think Newmark was intentional about keeping it very basic.
Adam | August 4, 2010 9:04 PM
@mark o'brien I think Don Norman or Jakob Nielsen would disagree with you. Craigslist has been controversial from a design/UI perspective, but it is lauded by many on the merits of not just longevity, but austerity. I think their success, or chances of success have nothing to do with when it went live. It could easily be successful if it were launched tomorrow, particularly for being iconoclastic. If anything, it's a quite strikingly appropriate translation of the newspaper classifieds to a digital form.

Ok, otherwise, fantastic column, as usual. I always know I can trust that you are on the forefront of all things web.
Mark O'Brien | August 4, 2010 8:59 AM
Derek, I agree with you about the reverse-wireframe image Chris created. The text of the article was making a lot of sense to me, but it all came together as soon as I saw the Amazon wireframe he created. It is amazing how cluttered that page is while also still being so successful.

I was speaking with a new client yesterday about CraigsList. A point I brought up to her applies here. If CraigsList (and Amazon) were to go live for the first time today as they currently exist the chances of their success would be grim--based solely on how poor the design is. However, the history of these two sites is very much worth considering.

We've come to expect a certain look and feel from these stalwarts of the first age of the internet, and I'm sure that Amazon at least is quite bound by the habits people have built over the years around how an Amazon product page works and where the key elements are. Amazon is probably very intentionally doing a sort of qualified usability testing. That is, testing within the context of what they know their users are expecting based on the historical UI precedent Amazon has set for itself.

This isn't to say they couldn't do better, and I think that this backs up Chris's point of not following the leader. Amazon (and a few other big name sites) is bound by rules the rest of us aren't.

The other point worth considering is that we users don't tend to like change. Just look at the uproar that occurs every time Facebook makes a UI adjustment. Amazon actually has changed quite a bit over the years, but it is amazing how it has also changed the same, for better or worse.
Derek Benoit | August 4, 2010 7:57 AM
Reverse-wireframing Amazon really helps to make your point and would probably make a great exercise for designers who wanted to QA their own work or maybe projects they're newly involved in. Once you get going on all the details of a page, it's hard to keep in mind the "big picture." Really great post!
Rick | August 3, 2010 6:28 PM
Ahh simplicity. Not new, but good to remember. Let's look at the Japanese as (since 1995, like you guys) suggests:

First sentence: "With respect to clarity, simplicity, and boldness of line, the Japanese have been a thousand years ahead of us in fine art and graphic design. Our best painters learned minimalism, cartooning, and much else from the Japanese during the “Orientalism” period of the late 19th century. Before that, western fine art was judged in part on its complexity and detail. And our posters and advertisements! Don’t ask."
Elliot Travers | August 3, 2010 5:18 PM
A very much needed admonishment! It's amazing that in such short order the web has already fallen into the rut you're rebuking. Hopefully we're not so far in that we can't be pulled out. I'm inspired by your words to try.
Nancy Cowen | August 3, 2010 2:38 PM
Great article. Very helpful as I venture down the path of redesigning my own site.

Simplicity, has always been a key to good design - less can be more. There is the temptation to include everything, just because we can, but it's often isn't optimal, and the message gets lost.

Thanks keeping me on the right path :)
Eileen Burick | August 3, 2010 12:27 PM
I'm glad to see that the tide is slowly turning back to the realization of how important design -- good design is. There is so much content just thrown into a blog format page these days (and called a "website") that a viewer can hardly distinguish one site from the next!

I believe that the "visual hierarchy" you mentioned -- of solving the problem of the overflow of information -- requires a systematic order that is part intuitively artistic and part practically logical.

It's a skill and a talent that few "web designers" (or IT folks calling themselves web designers) do not possess or have an understanding of.

Designers trained in print communications may seem to be less relevant these days, but the core strategy of organizing information in a story-telling form, from the cover to the inside spreads to the back cover (of a print piece) and communicating the message from general to specific so that the viewer has some clue about the overall intent, direction and positioning of the message are still very valid tools in developing the architecture of an online presence.

The optimum User Experience includes pleasing visuals and clearly identified eye travel along with consistent navigation and a well though-out information hierarchy design.

Content integrates and depends on well-designed visuals to solve the communication problem, lead the viewer through the content in a way that makes sense and is not confusing in order for the resulting desired action to take place.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” —Steve Jobs
Ceci Dadisman | August 3, 2010 10:32 AM
EXCELLENT POST! We tend to get too focused on things other than our audience. Good food for thought!
indie_preneur | August 3, 2010 10:16 AM
Great points -- I've always marveled at all the so-called design sites that are just repurposing of other content in a poorly designed fashion. I've often commented that I feel design should carry more weight than it does, even in our community. Sure, content is king, but if you can't read the content b/c of poor heirarchy or too many ads, what's the point.

Also, I came from your newsletter, you might want to link that directly to the second page, at least the 'Read More' link.

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