When Simplicity Gets Misused (Users aren’t Amused)

Not so long ago I moved further away from a typical blog layout and implemented a minimalistic homepage, that to me felt more authentic and natural.

I loved it for a month or so, until I started thinking a lot about its usability. It had a serious problem. I’d made a classic mistake, where  simplicity is misused to make something more complicated and difficult.

The problem was, I hadn’t really thought about the people coming to the homepage. Who were they, why where they going there, and what did I want them to see? Like the whole site, the homepage had no defined purpose.

I was forcing everyone to read everything to find anything. I’d made a mistake in getting rid of navigation but not providing a better way to use the site. Click into the image and you’ll see what I mean.

So I got out the simple stick and prepared to beat it up, but before taking a swing, I stopped to ponder what I was doing and why.

Design needs a goal, but do I have one?

Defining a purpose is a permission slip to totally ignore all other possible reasons for the thing to be created, and anyone trying to achieve something else. It’s means focussing on a specific need so you can really solve the problem without diluting efforts.

What are people using AliDark.com for? What do I want them to use it for – what do I want out of it?

I had never really defined a purpose for the site. It was just, you know, a personal blog type site where from time I write about several different passions were my temporary reason to exist. It always felt like it had multiple purposes or none – it was simply whatever I want it to be at that moment and that was OK.

So it was literally doing nothing. And that was OK too. The had no real purpose or goal besides being a home for my writing and ideas.

And there it is, hidden in a deflating statement disguised as an excuse.

I had assumed that because the content on the site has no overarching goal, that there was no goal for the site. That’s a hard environment to design in, because you’re designing for nobody to achieve nothing. But if I feel my posts worth finding, I can confidently define my site as “allowing people to access my writing and ideas,” and invest in a design that supports that.

Careful with that simple stick.

In design you have to consider the stakes. Yes, you should not include elements that do not support the purpose. You should not include elements that don’t need to be there for basic functionality. It’s for this reason that I think a search box is a bit redundant on a site as small and simple as mine.

The funny thing is, I had been thinking I was making it easy on people, by removing superfluous menus, columns, elements. But I wasn’t. People need to navigate. I didn’t give them a proper or natural way of getting around the site.

This is what I came up with, and I think It works (aside from being beautiful).

Sometimes removing elements gets so exciting (for me…) I have to do a double-take. I remind myself that simplicity only works when it’s not removing usability in the form of functions people need. And really, a lot is still being communicated. So here’s an explanation of what’s gone, what stayed and why…

You’re at alidark.com – so you know my name. Not only would a site title take away from the simplicity of the four links, it’s not really adding anything that isn’t one half an inch above. I judged that people don’t really need this.

You can see the four bold links that tell you what I’m into. I think that removes a lot of the need for an about page. I always struggle with about pages. I’d rather people got straight into the content that tells you just as much about me. Even if not, those four links and the presentation of the page should tell you quite a bit already. As for the mundane details I usually struggle to include in an about page – they’re banished, hopefully forever.

They’re also the navigation, and together they pretty much lead to everything on the site on just the next page, including per-category subscription options (as I’m pretty sure people won’t want info on design and culture together, if they do, they can have both!)

On category pages, you have the title and description, with a list of tags that occur in that category. Note that tags aren’t accessible in other places – so it’s a process of drilling down. Of course on a site with a more contained topic base, a full tag list would make more sense. But here, I only want to expose people to what they’re interested in.

I’ve tried to implement a highly intuitive category and tag based navigation. We’ll see how it goes, but here’s the idea:

Because I only want to show people what they want, not the whole thing at once, the only avenue to site-wide navigation is a home link in the upper right-hand corner. I’m assuming that people have followed their interests into the site whether form the homepage, a link or a search, so from any given post you can always navigate around related categories and tags – and only related ones.

Navigation to other categories and their tags doesn’t happen without returning to the homepage where you can see those four basic choices (that lead to all the site content).

I have included the post’s tags at the end of the post, giving someone who’s go to the end a choice to explore related topics.

To sum up, I’m pretty happy with where the site is at. It doesn’t get used enough for me to truly know how used it is, so analysing won’t be possible. The best analytics are comments anyway!

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Posted on October 9, 2012 Modified October 11, 2012