This post was originally posted on the Adaptive Path blog.

The permeation of software in society has given everyone the opportunity to do what only professionals were capable of in years past. The web has only accelerated its progression. There are whole new segments of the population who are now frequently publishing their writing, editing video, and processing photos, among other things. The problem, however, is that to meet the needs of this new untrained audience, the methods of interaction have been over-simplified in the process. Instead of bringing everyone up to a higher proficiency, this is dragging everyone down, including professionals, to a lower state. Superficially designed products create superficial understandings of the subject matter. Expect more of your audience, give them a good reason why it is worth their time, and you will have a better audience as well as a better product.

When easy becomes vapid

The line between simple and simplistic is highly subjective. I think the line has been crossed when an articulation of a concept strips a level of complexity from its subject for the sake of ease that, consequently, creates negative implications for the user. It can happen anywhere; from interfaces, to copywriting, to how concepts are articulated. Cable news is often guilty of this in the presentation and debate of political policy, ultimately driving down the public's understanding of the subject matter. Perhaps a more contentious example of this would be the spell-checking feature in word processors that have made today's writers too dependent on the feature and unable to properly proofread.

Vapidity lets people down

Immeasurable time and resources are put into removing any perceived cognitive overhead in a wide array of our daily interactions. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this, however, over-emphasis on easy comes at a cost. Often, this effort results in a shallow derivative of the subject's original form which ends up trivializing both subject and user. The premise for removing difficulty is correct, many people do feel intimidated when they are presented with too much complexity. However, the conclusion to remove complexity at any cost misses the mark. While people do feel intimidated when presented with complexity, the issue is often how the subject matter is presented or contextualized. Rather than deal with the real problem of explaining and guiding people through difficult topics and/or processes, it is simply removed or devolved. This results in viewing potentially innovative solutions as dead on arrival if they happen to have the unfortunate side-effect of a learning curve.

Simplistic products can give the false impression of competence which removes the user's incentive to learn and improve. Instead of encouraging users to grow, it ends up wasting their time by giving them the illusion of aptitude. This can lead a person to remain dependent on the product or experience a sense of let-down when the user discovers their knowledge of the subject matter was inadequate. Placating the desire to remove effort in every facet of our lives creates an expectation that unless a product holds your hand through an entire process, auto-magically takes care of everything for you, and, god forbid, makes you think, it is somehow lacking.

An example of trivializing important, complex experiences is found on legacy.com. The website takes the burden out of sharing your condolences by writing it for you.

Writing the condolences for the loss of a loved one should be complex, time-consuming and, yes, hard. There should be nothing easy about it. This is a prime example of how over-simplifying tasks and ideas robs opportunities for growth. As soon as something this fundamental to who we are is made so soulless and vapid, it strips us of our most essential personal experiences. Making the naturally complex process unnaturally painless for the sake of the user's convenience treats neither they nor the subject with respect and ultimately strips them of any confidence in performing the actual task when it inevitably becomes necessary.

No one advocates for intentionally-designed solutions that are obtrusive or convoluted. We should not need to "walk in the snow uphill both ways" for every single thing we do in our lives. However, we should also not create the false impression that one can walk downhill both ways.

Recommendations

The goal of design should be to turn the most difficult into the most enjoyable. While nothing below is particularly new, they are still worth noting.

Challenge people (in the right ways)

Some of our most rewarding moments are rooted in overcoming challenges. Not muddling through time-wasting, unnecessarily convoluted moments, but genuinely difficult tasks that we worked through. Why then would we shy away from presenting these types of opportunities to our audiences? There needs to be an expectation or even a demand for people to learn and grow in order to "get to the good stuff." Vitamin R is an interesting example of an application that helps people reach goals by splitting them into more smaller, more reachable tasks. The important thing here is that there is no intention to simplify the end goal, making easier to accomplish, but rather to restructure it, making the process more manageable.

Determining the correct level of challenge is obviously a difficult job, but a necessity to deliver a fulfilling experience. Too elementary, and the value to engage may be questioned, too onerous, and frustration kicks in. Difficult job or not, this equilibrium has been considered crucial to maintain a state of flow; a concept proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi states three conditions for flow, one of which being, "a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand."

Honest trumps simple

In dumbing down our language, our concepts and processes, we are often times warping its true form. If the appropriate language to communicate a concept is complicated, use it. There are plenty of well established methods to help people through these types of issues without resorting to editorial or design changes. It is OK not to understand something, it is not OK to think you know something that is not accurate.


Rather than edit content to be easier to read, The New York Times website allows you to select words and look up the meaning in a dictionary.

Simple, with depth

Some of the most successful products don't take much time to learn, but take much time to master. It comes from taking complexity and either rendering it in a simple manner or delaying exposure to it until the user is ready for it, not from removing it altogether. What is elementary should be explicit and obvious, what is difficult can be revealed in more subtle ways where the user can decide to engage when they are ready for it. OS X in general is an example of an informationally-dense interface that is presented elegantly. A great example of this is all its hidden gems that quietly provide a large amount of information. One of those gems is the close button's unsaved state. If a file has unsaved changes, the close button will have a dark dot in the middle.

an image of an unsaved document

Explicit? No. However, I doubt that was the intention of this design decision. It was there, adding depth to the experience if/when it was noticed, but not critical if missed.

Do not avoid necessary complexity, articulate why it's important

If a subject is naturally complex, work to make it no more complex than it needs to be, but no less. People are not naturally averse to complexity, however they need to know it is worth their time and energy. Educating them on how to do something is not enough, there should be education on why it's important. People enjoy learning if the subject is interesting and engaging, it is the job of design to not just deliver simplicity, but to also provide delight. A great example of a service fulfilling this aim is On The Run in San Francisco. On The Run sells running shoes in a very unique way. The staff members spend time making sure they give their customers a detailed explanation of how a shoe should fit them, thereby improving their comfort, support, and ultimately, their performance. A session at the store not only gets a customer into a pair of shoes tailored to their needs, but also gives them a strong understanding of the subject and enables them to make better purchases in the future.

Challenging users in the correct manner will ultimately lead to more engaged, informed, and self-sufficient users. Informed users have a better idea of what they want and can better articulate why they want it. Most importantly, a user who is engaged with a subject is more willing and able to grow with it.

Examples of making hard enjoyable

The exciting news is that there are plenty of companies and organizations that are proving to be very successful by not dumbing down their products. Not all of the examples pertain directly to design or UX, but the principles they put into practice are worthy of emulation. Below are a few shining examples.

TED

TED is perhaps the most obvious on this list, but that makes it no less worthwhile to point out. For years now, TED has been sharing inspirational and challenging video presentations by some of the smartest people in the world. The subject matter is not diluted, or abridged and because of that it captures the imagination and interest of countless viewers.

a screenshot of the TED homepage

Radiolab

Think astrophysics, ethics in natural selection, or civil engineering is over your head? Radiolab makes learning accessible and engaging. It makes you want to learn without turning it into a For Dummies book.

a picture of the two radiolab hosts
Marco Lau (via The New York Observer)

Portal/Portal 2

Valve figured out a way to design a game where the player solves extremely complicated puzzles devoid of hand-holding, has little to no violence, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest video games of our era.

an image of the Portal game

Lightroom

Adobe's photo management software is professional grade, but is also quite accessible to the weekend photographer who may not always need fine tuning. The application is well partitioned, nothing is dumbed down. It does not force the novice user to dig into complex developing processes, but makes them available when the user is ready for it.

an image of Lightroom 3

Wrapping it up

The task to make difficult processes simple, while preserving their true form is significant. Selling it to people can be even more difficult. For myself, the debate is not whether it is necessary, but where the line is drawn between challenging users and creating unnecessary barriers. No matter where that line ends up being for each practitioner, if designers take the easy way out, we can expect no better from users.

Acknowledgements

This post was the second go at opening the writing process to the public. The first post written in this manner turned out well and I really believe this one turned out even better. The first draft, second draft, and final draft are still available for viewing. I want to extend my gratitude to all the contributors: Alex Baldwin, Brock French, Honey Mae, Ix, Pam Daghlian, Peter Boersma, and my wife. The feedback was tremendous and made the post significantly better than anything I could have written on my own. Thank you again.