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Why simple is hard...

Maybe it's human nature to over-complicate everything. We get lost in the detail and sometimes delight in our ability to understand and communicate complex subject matter. However, when businesses present overly complex information online (about their products and services), they can quickly create a disconnect between the needs of an organisation and supporting a good customer experience.

Simple is hard...

Organisations spend a lot of time developing procedures, internal processes and a wide range of controls to support day-to-day operations. But is it realistic to expect customers to have the same level of understanding of these processes; and what happens if they don't?


We've all been there

I'm sure we have all experienced frustration at one time whilst making online purchases, where an ecommerce site requires us to enter a credit card number in a specific format. Has this happened where you've entered spaces or hyphens into a credit card field, only to run out of space? You then have to go back and strip out extra characters until you can make the card number fit into the exact field length provided. Issuers of credit cards emboss the card numbers with spaces, so why can't we use the same formatting when purchasing online? What customers may not know is that spaces and hyphens allow for number ‘chunking’ for readability and easy recall of the number. Organisations however don't require these spaces, nor do they generally store spaces within their systems. Hence, the disconnect.


The customer needs to know the right way to do this!

On a recent project I discussed a similar instance with a business owner. It went like this, "When a customer places an order, they need to know how our system processes the information so they will format the data correctly. And we need to communicate this in the UI". My reply was simply "Why?" Organisations are aware of business rules and requirements, but why do customers need to be aware of how information is processed (and stored) in order to complete a straight-forward transaction?

Take an analogy of purchasing a car. Would a sales-person make sure a customer understood how a combustion engine or a transmission works, or would they focus on understanding, and meeting, the needs of the customer?


What's missing?

When we build online sites with a purely developer and business focus we risk leaving out one of the most important ingredients - the customer.

This is where User Experience designers can bridge the gap and help organisations understand what the customer wants, the mental models they use to navigate user interfaces (UI), and what helps them successfully complete online tasks. Through research and customer testing organisations can discover meaningful and simplified UI flows, appropriate presentations, online messaging and how to best support the customer experience.

How people make sense or comprehend a task, or situation, is rooted in memory of past experiences. What is familiar, what looks or feels like something I have encountered before. Keeping things simple rather than overburdening the customer with long introductions and explanations of underlying processes will help focus on what is vital to know, and what is a secondary or 'nice to know'. To quote some previous customer feedback I received on a project "Tell me about what I need to know, but don't get in the way. If I'm stuck I'll ask."


Keeping it simple

So how do we keep customers focused on what's important? Timely contextual messaging and prompts, within a flow, can help guide customers to complete online tasks or transactions. This approach avoids the need to present lengthy text to customers at the beginning of a flow. Instead customers are presented with short messages, or prompts, relating specifically to what they are doing at that time. For example, "Step 1. To get started please select a region".

Progressive disclosure (aka progressive reveals) is another design method of reducing UI clutter, and also displaying information based on customer selection. For example, if a customer has a number of possible paths they could choose, none of these variations would be displayed until they had first made a selection that reflected their needs – for example, allow then to first select a country and then display a regional or city list for selection.

In the online space we can also use UI design patterns to present a familiar interface and support a good experience. An example of a common and recognisable UI pattern would be the search field and accompanying button with a magnifying glass. It feels familiar to many people and doesn't require help text to explain how it works. The more we use common patterns within UI flows, the more we reduce the need for our customers to 're-learn' how an interface works.

Defensive design, where we plan for mistakes and unpredictable use of the UI, can also guide the customer to a satisfactory outcome. For example, don't simply present a standard message about incorrectly entered data or required fields that simply berates the customer - "Alert! Enter a product code". Instead, think about providing a context that gives them enough information to successfully completed the task - "To register, please enter the product code printed on the back of the manual. For example XXX-1909762."


Play nice

The idea of 'forgiveness' within a UI flow is a method that allows the customer to enter what they believe is the required data format, but the data will then be cleaned up when submitted (into the format the organisation requires).

A simple example of UI data entry 'forgiveness' could be entering bank account numbers. Banks do not require hyphens or spaces within an account number to process a transaction - they are merely there for the purpose of human readability. So in a forgiving UI we would let a customer enter (or copy and paste) an account number as they may see it (e.g. 010-1234567-999), but upon submission the system would strip out any irreverent characters from the data. In addition, to reinforce awareness about formatting we could also present a UI prompt informing the customer - for example, "spaces and hyphens are optional."


The end goal

So what’s the benefit to the customer? A simplified UI flow with contextual and timely messages that guide them through the task at hand. Don't create unnecessarily flows with endless amounts of content presented up-front for the customer to read.

They are not required to understand data formats, but get a good experience in the knowledge that the organisation takes care of all these requirements in the background.

Reducing the 'noise' of additional or irreverent messaging means you can focus on what is vital and help create an online experience that reinforces customer needs and not just build frustrating interactions that meets business requirements.  

Simple is hard. It requires an understanding of your customers’ needs, and continuous rounds of iterations. But when it’s done right it can help reinforce a positive customer experience.


Harrod, Martin (2008)
Retrieved 01 Sept. 2012

Progressive disclosure
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (2012)
Retrieved 01 Sept. 2012

Forgiving Text Entry
Tidwell, Jenifer (1999)
Retrieved 01 Sept. 2012

Defensive design
Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (2009)
Retrieved 01 Sept. 2012