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Why simplicity is key to customer experience – and why it should never be confused with minimalism

Stripping back frills to make the customer journey as simple and easy to navigate as possible does not always equate to minimalist design

Rich Cousins, Brandwidth

Associate Creative Director

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As the world grows ever more complex, brands need to stay simple to guide consumers through the confusion. Simplicity matters for brands, as it is all too easy to create a multiple pile up of promotions, offers, security logins, and design features that, while well-intentioned, confuse rather than clarify. 

Over the past decade, a wave of mobile-first challenger brands has brought a new clarity to marketing, with the likes of Apple, Uber, Airbnb and Monzo bringing stripped down, easy-to-navigate design offering a seamless customer experience.

Marketers and designers can easily confuse simplicity and minimalism, ending up with a user experience that is far from straightforward.

Rich Cousins, Associate Creative Director of Brandwidth

While they have revolutionised design thinking with their pared down apps, they can sometimes get it wrong. Much as I appreciate the minimalist black and white design of the Uber app, it can be hard to find your way around the app on a dark street corner after a few drinks. And the generally excellent customer experience of Apple has in the past fallen victim to its minimalist approach.

The rewards of keeping the user experience simple are many, as brands such as Google and Monzo show.

But marketers and designers can easily confuse simplicity and minimalism, ending up with a user experience that is far from straightforward. Simplicity is about making the consumer’s journey frictionless, seamless, and easy so they will have no hesitation in looking to repeat the experience. Each customer is trying to achieve a specific goal through our designs – to buy a product, find a taxi or check their bank balance. A simple brand experience makes it straightforward and quick to achieve their aim. It will encourage them to spend more time and more money with the brand, to recommend it to friends and to become advocates.

But minimalism is something different. Minimalism is a visual practice from the art world and means stripping away the complexities of a design to give an outline of reality, rather than focusing on every detail. But stripping out all frills and extraneous design elements from an app or interface can end up backfiring if it fails ultimately to make life easier for the user. Minimalism should not be confused with simplicity.

Simplicity is about improving the user experience (UX) rather than updating the user interface (UI).

Rich Cousins, Associate Creative Director of Brandwidth

Apple was accused of making this mistake with the 2013 iOS 7 update, when iPhone product designer Sir Jony Ive was controversially given the task of redesigning the iPhone’s software system. He did away with the iOS 6 “skeumorphism” – making digital design resemble the real world - where native app icons were given features that looked three dimensional and recalled their real–life counterparts. In iOS 6, the Notes app was a version of a lined, yellow legal pad, while the Books app resembled a pine bookcase. Ive’s iOS 7 update introduced a new, minimalist, flattened approach to native apps with all 3D imagery stripped away. Out went the pine bookcase and legal pad. Some loved it. But others found it confusing, difficult to use and unattractive. They argued that minimalism didn’t equate with simplicity but in fact made it harder to use the iPhone.

In the end, Ive’s vision won out and has been used in iOS updates ever since. But the criticism needs to be born in mind and brands should always take care when they adopt minimalist designs and make sure that they still help to simplify and not complicate the user experience. Simplicity is about improving the user experience (UX) rather than updating the user interface (UI).

The UI concerns issues such as how a user navigates through a page, where their mouse goes, where their eye looks, what they click on and whether the colours change to indicate a change of status. The UX is a much bigger question for designers - how can you create a simple, intuitive digital experience that leads the consumer to become a regular customer and spend more time and money with the brand? 

This matters as the transformational technology start-ups of the past ten years mature and add features and functionality to their apps and websites, with new services and audience segments potentially piling on confusion. From Uber and Airbnb to Netflix and Amazon, can they maintain an intuitive UX while expanding their services and their audience engagement?

Technology can lend a hand, by giving brands insights about each individual user, allowing them to boost personalisation. Rather than crowding a financial app with a clamour of savings and loan offers, each user can be targeted with a single relevant offer, keeping the interface clean and crisp. And as we head into the metaverse, already quite a complex idea, it will be vital to make the brand experience as simple and seamless as possible.

Designers and marketers should learn from the minimalists and constantly keep asking how they can strip out anything which detracts from the customer experience, but always keeps a user front of mind. This will be an ingredient for success in an increasingly bewildering world. 

Guest Author

Rich Cousins, Brandwidth

Associate Creative Director , Brandwidth

About

Bringing over a decade of experience in branding, advertising and digital design, Rich heads up Brandwidth’s Design Team. Leading a team of designers across a variety of global accounts, Rich’s passion lies in problem solving – using design to develop rationale and strategic concepts. He develops creative platforms as well meaningful and effective design solutions supported by UX and CX thinking.