Why complexity is a good thing

May 27, 2021
Featured on UX Planet

“Keep it simple.”

Three words that are used every day, across every industry. Complication, it seems, has become the enemy of the modern person: we are busy people, after all. Time poor and duty heavy, we need things to just work. You know, a one-stop-shop where we can get everything done quickly and easily, all in the one spot.

Wait a second. Can you see the problem here?

For things to ‘just work’, a level of complexity is required
Basic functionality is simple — but it’s also useless. These days users want it all, in one place. This, therefore, is quite a tricky challenge: how to balance out something that feels simple to use but has the required complexity to be useful.

As a designer, I’ve noticed a growing trend among clients and creatives alike to ‘keep it simple.’ However, in an industry in which we are constantly needing to ask ourselves what the user wants, perhaps it’s time to make a case for the opposite. But first, a lesson in semantics.

The opposite to simple isn’t just ‘complicated’, it can also be ‘complex’
‘Complicated’ is a bad thing, but ‘complex’ is good. Great, even. Complexity suggests nuance, depth, consideration, and with many things, usefulness. Simplicity, on the other hand, musn’t always be aligned with a positive notion. Simplicity can be reductive and stunting, denying creators the opportunity to fully explore a product or function.

So let’s be sure that we are considering and questioning the concepts of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ fully before creating entire strategies around them.

Simple vs. Complex: what’s more useful?
As we explored above, part of the process as a designer in creating a solution for your client is to balance out something being simple, and complex. It is during this process that you must fight the urge to oversimplify.

In fact, if we could sneak our way into every meeting room of every UX design workshop all around the country, we would ask one question: is the complexity you’ve created to simplify the user experience, or are you simplifying so much that it’s become complicated?

(That’s a mouthful! Take a minute and consider it — it’s helpful, promise.)

The process of building a site, as you know, is more like an act of demolition. You build it up, adding on pages and content and functionality and social media tabs and whoa — all of a sudden, it’s a monster. Time to break it down. So, you hold a UX workshop it which you begin to dismantle some of the site; trimming the fat and hopefully ending up with something that looks simple, acts complex and feels useful.

This UX workshop stage is hugely important to balancing the site to be both simple, and complex.

Listen and learn from the user
It’s tempting to offer advice on the adjustment process, but the truth is, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Each site or program is going to behave differently, and require varying levels of complexity. That’s why it’s important to have an intuitive UX team to guide you through. However, we will say this: listen to your user.

They will be your ultimate guide when it comes to bundling and unbundling your product or site. Their behaviours will provide markers for when something is too complicated, or oversimplified. Whether it’s abandoning a shopping cart, failing to click through to the final page of the form, or even just leaving the home page after a few short seconds, these will be the blinking neon lights saying ‘Wrong Turn’.

Only add complexity when needed
Complications are added at many stages of the build aside from initial ideation. Account managers might jump in at the final hour, with additions that help them meet a certain business goal. Clients can pull content that suddenly doesn’t align with their branding. And developers may pull the plug on some functionality that looked like it was going to work…and doesn’t.

In the face of these challenges, don’t panic. The solution to balancing complexity and simplicity is, after all, easy: you just need to keep your purpose at the core.

Bundle, unbundle, start again
Before you begin the planning process, sit down and figure out your core mission for the site. Is it to provide information? Sell products? Drive sign-ups? Whatever it is, it must remain at the heart of every decision made during the build.

Then, slowly add on the elements of complexity that your user is calling for. If it’s an e-comm site, for example, maybe they love the ‘Most Shopped’ information. It might seem like a superfluous addition in the eyes of a designer, but if it’s prized by your user? Keep it in.

Simplicity isn’t that simple
“Keep it simple.” It seems like a solid mantra until you start looking at it from different angles. If health insurance was overly simple, would you trust it? If a phone only had calling capabilities, would you buy it? And if a dish had just two ingredients, would you order it?

Complexity is crucial to meeting the needs and desires of the consumer. Done right, and it will ensure that you are being useful and remain desired. Done badly and it veers into complication and confusion.

Know the difference, and always be ready to stand up for complexity in the face of simplification.

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