‘Simplicity’ isn’t a word we often find in the brief for a new website, but it is a concept we are absolutely passionate about introducing to our clients as a foundation of good web design.
Why? Well, we’ve known for many years that simplicity outperforms complexity in website design. A study conducted at the University of Basel for Google in 2012 showed that with the average visitor forming an overall opinion within 1/20 of a second, “visually complex” websites are rated as less appealing than simpler ones.
The same advantage was found for “highly prototypical” sites i.e. those with layouts that were considered typical for their sector or category.
In essence, the simpler the design, the better the visitor response.
But why should this be the case?
The Science of Simplicity
It turns out that a growing body of research in neuroscience and the psychology of judgement and decision-making is starting to explain.
There are many principles at play, but perhaps the most powerful is Cognitive Ease, sometimes known as Cognitive Fluency. Cognitive Ease describes the phenomenon whereby the more easily our brain can process information, the more positively we feel about it. Among the many things which help us process information and ideas are simplicity, familiarity, narrative flow, imagery, and consistency.
So naturally a website built around these principles feels familiar, true, trustworthy and good.
On the other hand, one which does not take them into account will create discomfort, leading to a loss in confidence, trust and pleasure.
Designing for simplicity
Of course simple website design isn’t necessarily easy website design.
In many ways, designing for simplicity is actually harder. It requires extremely careful planning, and strong technical as well as design skills. There are a huge number of factors to consider.
But it is possible to draw out a few key themes.
1. The simplicity principle
It can be easier to add things to a web page than to leave them out, but remember that each additional piece of content or functionality could be making your fight for Cognitive Ease more difficult.
Of course you might need some animation or interactive features to engage your visitors. But you won’t need them all.
Often the biggest step you can make towards visual simplicity is in controlling the use of video and animation, carefully limiting the number of pop-ups, and perhaps banning altogether animated and rotating banners (which have been repeatedly shown to have no, or only detrimental, effect on visitor engagement).
The simplicity principle we use is this: make sure that each piece of content and each piece of functionality fights for and deserves its place on the website.
Don’t include things because you can, include them because you should.
2. The building blocks
Remember, Cognitive Ease is about encouraging positive subconscious reactions. And at a subconscious level, our reaction is often about the little details which can easily go unregarded.
Colour is one of the best studied of these. Different colours elicit different emotional responses (see infographic here for an excellent breakdown), so it’s vital to make sure that your colour choices are in line with the type of response you are trying to elicit.
Even typography can have a role to play here. Serif fonts are known to project tradition and authority, while sans serif fonts are typically considered more modern. Again, the right choices will work with your overall design, rather than fighting against it.
3. Expected navigation
Don’t succumb to the temptation of alternative or unusual website navigation, just to help you stand out from the crowd.
The familiarity principle shows why Contact Us is likely to work much better than ‘Get in Touch’, ‘Reach Out’ or any number of ‘funky’ variations.
So when you do break out of the norms of About Us, Products, Services and so on, make sure you’re doing it for a strong reason. When we decided to tag our blog ‘Lead: The Debate’, rather than ‘Blog’, it was as an expected and logical part of our overall ‘lead’ branding, not an innovation for its own sake.
4. Right pictures, right place
Used properly, high-quality images should prime the visitor to expect high-quality ideas and services. Bespoke and relevant visual elements can create powerful emotional responses, as well as making a major contribution to differentiation.
A consistent theme or style of imagery through the website will help the visitor process your messages more easily, leading to a more positive response.
Something as simple as where you put the images on the page can also have a big impact. There is evidence that by placing images on the left rather than the right of the page, the visual elements will be handled by the right hemisphere of the brain, which is better suited for image processing.
5. Calls to action
Adding more calls to action (CTAs) doesn’t necessarily mean more action! Applying the simplicity principle here means making fewer CTAs work harder and better.
CTAs should be placed where the content naturally takes the visitor i.e. at the end of a key piece of content, not stuck in the top right hand corner of the page.
They should follow the colour and typography choices already discussed, and their wording should be in plain, simple and expected language.
Particular attention should be paid to forms, which should be well-designed to request only essential details, providing cues and dropdowns where possible, and perhaps include phone number alternatives for anyone who prefers to speak with someone rather than submitting an enquiry form.
Once you’ve got a strong, simple design which encourages Cognitive Ease, make sure you stick to it! Limit the number of page layouts you use, keep colours and image styles consistent, and make sure the tone of voice remains constant throughout.
Just as importantly, make sure that your simple and expected navigation remains consistent across the whole website.
Bad navigation loses potential customers, not just in a figurative but also a literal sense!
7. Mobile friendly
Finally, make sure all of this thinking is applied as much to mobile screens as it is to laptops and desktop monitors.
Whether you plump for a ‘responsive’, ‘mobile first’ or ‘mobile only’ approach will depend very much on your own market, customers and objectives.
But in even the most traditional market, a design which doesn’t work on mobile just doesn’t work, full stop.
Less is more
Today’s marketers have more tools and techniques at their fingertips than at any time in history. The temptation to try to use them all can be overwhelming.
But in fact, website design is an outstanding example of exactly why we need to guard against this instinct for complexity, and to stick – more often than not – to simplicity.
Of course creativity and technical innovation have an important role to play in successful website projects.