UX ≠ Minimalism

Experiences can be complicated -- good design should embrace that complexity.

To the layman, overzealous college entrepreneur, or misguided professional, the thought of UX might bring to mind simplistic design, sleek look-and-feel, and minimalist UI. Basically, what they think of is Apple: simple, flat, bare — and a critical consumer success.

This is poor expectation to pin on UX. Here’s why.

Rawan AbuShaban

February 12, 2018

Context is key.

User experience is fundamentally tied to purpose. It’s fueled by the reasoning and deliberation of a designer in creating something to address real user needs. Oftentimes, minimalism contradicts those needs.

Minimalism is style, design approach, and philosophy. Officially, it’s defined as “a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.”

Smashing Magazine outlines the six principles of minimalist design as:

  1. Less is more
  2. Subtract until it breaks
  3. Every detail counts
  4. Color minimally
  5. White space is vital

 

This design style comes in handy when user needs can be resolved in a way that isn’t super complex. If minimalism is right for your product, you need to figure a few things out first. What is the intended function of the product? How many things is it supposed to do or accomplish? How basic is it supposed to be? It is a lamp? Headphones? A blog? Let’s use that last one as an example, because consumer media is relatable and easy to talk about.

Medium, the popular blogging platform, is credited for its minimalist approach to web design. They’re self-described as a place to “read, write, and interact with the stories that matter most to you.” With those three extremely basic functions — and a broad user group — it’s easier to apply the principles of minimalism and erase any superfluous designs or components that distract from the core competencies of the site. (Strangely, I have a hard time training people to use the platform because they don’t really get it.)

Facebook, on the other hand, has multiple layers of functionality with different ranges of complexity for various types of users. A user’s home feed is filled to the brim… with stuff.

That’s because Facebook’s core functions are… everything? Photos, videos, news, events, groups, friends, jobs — it permeates so much of our lives that an interface without all this stuff would be really, really frustrating to use. No one wants to jump through hoops to share a video of a cat jumping through hoops. Sometimes, having everything in one place is nice, given that it’s organized and intuitive.

Users who want more.

If you’ve ever used Facebook for Business, you’d see the enterprise face of the dominant social media platform. As a marketer by trade, I’ve had plenty of experience using Facebook Ads and Business Manager. It’s not pretty. But it works.

Once you shift from B2C to B2B, you’ll see a change in user needs. They become specific, more in number, and demand details. To equip anyone with enterprise-grade technology, minimalism is defenestrated, because clean slates, negative spaces, and any other absence of tools or information is considered fluff. It’s an obstruction to productivity. And that’s bad design.

Somewhere in between Medium and Facebook is Craiglist.

Craigslist is an example of brutalist design — it’s an unadorned site reminiscent of the days you’d play Minesweeper on Windows 95. Still, it helps you easily accomplish everything you need, no bells or whistles involved. Buying and selling is simplified when the tools you need to use are all present and easy to use. In this case, having a larger upfront presence of product features and workflow starting points increase accessibility and ease of use.

However, loading your product with tools features isn’t always necessarily good design.

Let’s compare Snapchat in 2012 versus Snapchat in 2018.

When Snap, Inc. was still Snapchat as an MVP, it served the most basic function that teens fell hard in love with: sending disappearing pictures to friends.

Since then, Snap has acquired several startups to expand the range of the app’s functionality, from sharing Stories to stalking friends on Snap Maps, busting out Bitmoji avatars, establishing Snap Streaks, rolling out Discovery and local stories, news and promotional content — there’s just so much to do on such a limited user interface that people get confused about the nonlinear user flow and counterintuitive interaction design. This is probably the most frequently cited reason by much of my network regarding their preferences towards using Instagram, for those that have them.


There are plenty of ways to design something right and even more ways than that to design something wrong. While minimalism might be the ideal for your standards of your product, take the time to research your users and what they need, how they use your product, what pain points they experience. Then design your product based on what you know and how you can best help. That’s essentially what UX is. Yes, make things simple, but don’t oversimplify the your product’s core competencies, or you might end up reducing the user’s experience to something dissatisfactory or unusable.

If you’re an elite, leading consumer technology brand, then you could probably get away with hosting a minimalist design that permeates your entire product portfolio.

But if every user is a power user that demands high capacities for input and output across multiple functionalities, then minimalist design is probably not the best for your product.

Thoughts?

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