Start Small, Then Subtract

Addition or subtraction? It’s not a trick question (boxers or briefs?). It’s a legitimate question. Designing interfaces today is more challenging than ever. As servicing, marketing, branding, lines of businesses, channels and devices converge, it is more important to leverage data to make the right display choices. But there is so much data, and it’s not always conveniently available. We may not always have access to customer or transaction data, but project milestones must be met. In these cases there needs to be an informed decision about what to show users. By that I mean user input and a thorough inspection of web analytics that uncovers valuable clues to help connect the work to your firm’s KPI’s.

It’s very easy to pile on. Companies, particularly large firms really like the property of addition. Make a spreadsheet of all the things that can be done. Cram in as much as possible on the real estate of a web page (tougher with a handset isn’t it). It becomes a mess very quickly. I prefer another approach. My favorite mathematical property is subtraction. It’s harder to do because people look to see if their drivers are present in the design, and if not, push to put them in. Frequently four or five people are doing this. They always want more, I insist on less.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.

This quote is attributed to Albert Einstein. Leave it to some brainiac to interrupt my simplicity post by adding complexity. Further proof that subtraction, when it comes to content and design is one of the hardest things to accomplish. So, how does one subtract? By making addition a lost art. Many designers now are starting the work on smartphone screens, perfecting them, then taking them to the desktop browser. This forces one to be extremely spartan and strict. I love that trend. Here are some approaches I use.

  • Make the objective, or job of the page, the hero
  • Put only elements that will advance the objectives on the canvas
  • Prioritize the elements by using data, preferably at run time, and bring those into sharp focus (mature)
  • Lay out the customer journey, including all touch points and entry points to the design
  • Use personas to validate the journey
  • Repeat after me, nothing else matters

Group think or org chart mentality will kill the effectiveness of a design for the user and the business. No one wins when in many cases both sides can realize gain. Leverage live user testing that when done right, illuminates the big problems and can put to rest feature creep or business driven design.

One of the biggest challenges now is labeling and navigation. On the desktop browser we still have a pretty good chunk of real estate to put tabs, buttons, links, etc., to guide the user. On mobile devices we are much more restricted. Plus, you have to make it work in portrait and landscape. In these instances grouping is required. How to group and what to call the group is the challenge.

We are now using social media tools and the social graph to help. We set up a card sort exercise on the web and Tweet out to our followers that we are looking for people to help us design the next generation mobile interface for our customers. We also post these notices on our Facebook page. It’s essentially free and another great way to leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

Tweet to followers

Here is what users see when they follow the link to the card sort.

Card sort interface

My advice. Start small and then make it smaller. Incorporate data to inflect the design for segment relevancy and you will see improved results. Remember the mantra of Expedient MEANS; abandon the comprehensive and abbreviated, and select only the essential.

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