This is the second essay discussing the topic of Minimalism. In my first essay I try to explain what I believe to be the true nature of Minimalism and how it should govern design. In this second essay I focus on how Minimalism – if not properly understood – hinders and potentially ruins the User Experience.
To preface, here is an extract from my previous essay:
Often regarded as merely an aesthetic style, minimalism offers more than what meets the eye. One could apply minimalism as a purely visual treatment in design as well, but this would forego its rich potential. The true value of minimalism in design becomes apparent when it is applied as a holistic practice [to both its form and function]. Steve Jobs once said that design is not about how it looks, but how it works.
Good design requires a fundamental understanding of the problem at hand. Then, and only then, are you capable of resolving the challenge and produce great design. Minimalism is distilling complexity down to its essence.
I consider Minimalism the art of reduction. It is the exercise of removing any extraneous elements that are not essential to the product. I have argued before that Minimalism – while often regarded as merely an aesthetic style – actually defines the function of a product. It is inextricably linked to the design process because it ultimately describes the process of addition and subtraction of elements, where the designer pushes and pulls in the attempt to make the product perform all its necessary functions in the easiest and most intuitive way possible. No more, no less.
But if applied as an aesthetic tool without regard to the functional experience of a product it can have grave consequences to the overall experience of the product.
Take iTunes as an example. iTunes 12 marked an important departure from the tried and tested sidebar paradigm of versions before it. The sidebar provided you with a simple hierarchical overview of all your iTunes content, and the platform from which you could reach all corners of the essential functions of the iTunes. It showed you what you had, and what you could do.
The sidebar was continuously refined with each iteration of iTunes, absorbing more content, expanding the scope of functions and refining the way it categorized these sources. Still, the paradigm remained the same. The sidebar was the root directory and starting point of all actions in iTunes. Despite its proven track record of success, iTunes 12 departed from the sidebar to the outcry of many users. To replace it, Apple re-oriented the sidebar content horizontally and hid sub-categories in nested menus. The principal division of content remained the same (Music, Videos, Podcasts), but the way it is presented to the user has changed.
Now, Apple has had a long history of radical design decisions which seemed bad at first only to be redeemed with time. Change is usually always painful and often met with resistance because users have to re-learn familiar things. Only when it is absorbed and the value of the new is fully understood is it considered better than its predecessor. For this to happen, the new changes must indeed be better, and in the case of software: follow the Human Interface Design Principles. In the case of iTunes 12, I would argue that it does not.
Discoverability and Hierarchy
The original sidebar occupied substantial visual real-estate and was positioned on the left side of the application window (thus being read first by left-to-right western readers), ensuring top position in the visual and interaction hierarchy. It also ensured discoverability – informing them of all available content and providing them with a starting point of all user-interaction scenarios. This empowered the user to immediately create an accurate mental model of the application.
Apple also reduced the visual importance of the sidebar by orienting it horizontally and removing all visual signifiers of its hierarchy (now having the same background color as the content window ). Sub-categories of content (albums of artists etc.) are no longer immediately available in a list view, but are instead tucked away in modal menus. Main categories also overflow into a contextual menu, moving content further out of sight.
The side-effect of all of this is that action routes of users become less intuitive and clear, and sometimes hidden or lost. These action routes are crucial since they serve as tools for users to go from intention to experience. The Human Interface Design Principles call this “See and point” (Norman & Tognazzini, 2015). Disrupting them means disrupting the whole product experience continuum.
User Intentions → Interface tools → Experience
The user will first form an intention of what he wants to do, then employ the appropriate interface tools to perform the action, which in turn will lead to the perceived experience. These action routes are not just relevant for digital products, but physical ones as well. Let’s consider cameras.
A very obvious difference between a professional and a consumer camera is the amount of buttons. Put simply, the use scenario of professional photographers – and the way they work – calls for more action routes than the consumer scenario. While a professional photographer must control a wide variety of parameters with immediacy, consumers generally points and shoots. Hand a professional camera to a consumer and he will be confused with all the buttons. Hand a consumer camera to a professional and he will tear his hair out because he cannot control his usual set of parameters. His action routes are removed.
Despite its many buttons (30+), the professional camera is still a product of reduction (it could have had 60 of them), but the current number has been deemed essential for the use scenario. Both cameras offer equal degrees of functional minimalism, but different degrees of aesthetic minimalism (in this case measured by the amount of buttons on the device).
I believe that at its core, Minimalism should abide by the rule ’Simplest, Yet Complete.’ A full distillation of its functions and the subsequent removal of the non-essentials, but not more.
’Simplest, Yet Complete.’
If you compromise on this you run the risk of breaking the user experience. Believing that Minimalism is merely a process of removal or decluttering with a lack of regard to the functional aspect of the product is therefore a fallacy. Take the 3rd generation iPod shuffle for example.
All physical buttons were moved from the device up to the cable, and reduced from five to three. This created a reliance on modes and overcomplicated basic interactions, because “modes require a control to take on different meanings at different times, leading to confusion and errors” (Norman & Tognazzini, 2015).
Apple traded actual minimalism (ease of use – Minimalism in function) with apparent minimalism (visual decluttering – aesthetic Minimalism), and ended up breaking essential action routes. This Destructive Minimalism had devastating consequences to the usability of the product. Destructive Minimalism happens when the Law of Minimalism is broken, in this case by breaking essential action routes.
Apple products deliberately hide complexity by obscuring or even removing important controls.
Moving, hiding or removing essential buttons all together under the guise of minimalism is not true minimalism. Apple admitted defeat and soon returned to the 5-button orientation in the 4th generation Shuffle.
Removing buttons can however be executed successfully if replaced by an equal or better system that caters to their action routes.
With the T, Leica moved most of their physical buttons into the digital realm. It was not an exercise in apparent minimalism (simply making the visual expression ‘Simple’), but actual minimalism. The digital nature allows for more settings with higher granularity than their physical counterparts – and most importantly – they never broke any action routes.
The Nest thermostat took this a step further by rendering the action routes unnecessary. The Nest did not only shift buttons to software, but redefined the use-paradigm of thermostats which in turn rendered the buttons unnecessary. The needs of the user never changed (they still want to achieve a balance between comfort and economy), but instead of relying on low level granular user input for scheduling, it learns from high level user experience. The user simply inputs whether he is comfortable or not, and the product figures out the rest.
Understanding Minimalism means understanding that it is ultimately a consideration of how something works, not how it looks. Rather than simply removing elements from the system, Minimalism calls for a thoughtful reduction of these elements. This means collating multiple factors of a system to bring greater clarity while maintaining or increasing functionality. Only then do you preserve the Law of Minimalism.
Norman, D., & Tognazzini, B. (2015). How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name. http://www.fastcodesign.com/3053406/how-apple-is-giving-design-a-bad-name