When we design sites it’s all to easy to add various elements to the interface simply because it’s a ‘best practice’, something which has worked in the past or just something you feel you should do to aid the user. The problem with doing this is we never discover what the true needs of the user are because we offer them everything up front by default. By doing this user testing may not give us the insights we need.
Take for example help text for a question on a complex form. Thinking from the user’s perspective as we are inclined to do, we may decide to put some help text in to explain a particularly complicated question. By doing this we are already biasing our user testing to assume that help text is required in the first place.
For example our users may be more knowledgeable than us with the terminology of the question and may actually have no problem understanding it. If you build the help text in at the beginning this is an insight you may never get. Remember that you are not the user.
For truly user focused design we need to think about putting forward the absolute minimum interface required infront of the user to discover where they encounter issues and where they may need some additional enhancements.
This changes the focus from spending time developing parts of the interface up-front to progressively enhancing the design until it not only works functionally but becomes usable.
Of course there are some interface ‘best practices’ where the user simply expects to have it there and you can make a reasonable assumption that the absence of it would negatively impact the experience. One example of this may be clicking on a logo to go back to the homepage.
However, there are other areas such as form validation where there can be multiple approaches which the user may have been exposed to in the wild. It is in these instances that sometimes it is best to simply strip the functionality to it’s bare minimum and see what happens in user testing. This means you can identify where some extra thinking and enhancement may be required and design an appropriate solution.
This approach tends to produce more clutter free and more minimal interfaces. This is certainly the current design trend with flat design but it could be argued that this could lead to bland websites. There will always be a tension between usability and visual design. As long as you are user testing regularly this should give you the information you need to get the balance right.
Arguing to remove something in order to learn is often a harder argument to have with your team (or yourself!) than adding something. The fact remains we don’t know how users will behave until we see them using it.
Image courtesy kozumel