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The Art of Simple Design

February 20, 2014

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark TwainMaze

The same is true of design, and for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the design of learning experiences, websites and apps.

The secret to great design is simplicity. The challenge is that designing a simple solution to a complex problem is usually a long journey. It is far easier to design something complicated with every bell, whistle, doodah and whatnot, than to focus in on the minimum critical functionality and doing that really well.

So firstly, why is there a tendency to over complicate designs?

The customer wants it – if a customer has a decent budget and you have a reasonable timescale, almost anything is possible. It becomes tempting to include ‘cool’ functionality just because you’re able to. This is rather like, in course development, adding far too much content – the user can’t see what is important.

Unrealistic expectations of users – when you are totally submerged in a project it’s easy to forget that what might seem ‘intuitive’ to you may not be for your users. Getting their heads around your workshop, course, app or system is something they will expect to be easy. They will have high expectations of usability from the apps they use in their personal lives. If your design falls short of this, they will quickly switch off.

Not allowing time to think it through – boiling something down and making it really simple to use takes time, thought and effort. It is far easier to design more than less. In the pressure of a project it is tempting to rush the design phase so that you can get going on the build. The trouble is that this will lead to a sub-standard, over-complicated product.

 So what can you do to address these three situations?

The customer wants it – the constraints of time and budget are your allies here and even if a budget is generous, it won’t be bottomless. This helps you to focus in on the key functionality that the app / system / course / whatever must have. I often ask customers to prioritise functionality as this gives a really good steer on what it vital and what is secondary. Also focus on the behaviours, skills or outcomes that you want users to achieve. Wireframes, mockups and prototypes are great ways to help customers appreciate the level of complexity of something without having to build it.

Unrealistic expectations of users – what you need here is empathy. Empathy is the single most important ability for any designer to have. How can you develop empathy? Get to know your users. Spend time with them, talk to them, observe them, run focus groups and studies and use them as sounding boards. User testing early and often will help uncover if something is confusing or over-complicated.

Not allowing time to think it through – we typically separate out the design from the build phase of a project. The design phase is done for a small fixed cost, the output of which is the design, specification, costs and timescales for building the solution. Even before we begin the design phase, from discussions with the customer we are able to give an indication of the build cost (usually a range) which the design phase then specifies precisely. This approach mitigates the risk of the project for both parties. I like to work on a design over a period of weeks whilst working on other stuff too. If there is a particularly knotty design problem I don’t throw my self at it. I do a little work, leave it for a few days, then do a little more. I let my mind rest against the problem and wait for a solution to appear. It always does.


I challenge you to look at whatever you are designing right now – it might be a document, a presentation, a workshop, course, system or app – and ask yourself “is it simple?” If the answer is no, invest the time to make it so.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 10, 2014 9:58 pm


    There’s another saying – easy writing, difficult reading. Which I think is similar to the Mark Twain quote.

    For me getting the objectives clear at the start, or as soon as is possible, is also key to getting the right design. So many objectives seem to revolve round knowledge or skills, but I think there’s often an attitude element which gets left out. I break down objectives into: knowledge, skills, attitude and awareness. I explain how I use them in this blog : Writiing meaningful objectives is one of the hardest things – but are, in my opinion, the foundations of creating any learning experience.

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