There’s a buzz that’s common to every startup: a feeling that something wonderful is just over the horizon and any challenge can be overcome with enough enthusiasm and invention. One problem with this buzz, though, is that it breeds self-indulgent design work— creative drives are left to run wild with minimal filtering, and the resulting ideas are bullishly mistaken for brilliance.
That kind of work doesn’t cut it in the UX world. Users don’t care how wonderful your ideas are or how impressive your animation transitions may be, and unless you happen to have unlimited funds lying around, it’s the opinions of your users that matter in the end. Whether you like or dislike your designs is essentially irrelevant. Only the flow of UX is worthwhile.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to cancel your aspirational business party (that energy is going to take you a long way). I’m here simply to extol the virtues of design minimalism, and tell you about the key principles that go into building a great minimalist UX so your startup can avoid wasting energy on the wrong things and push on with the best chance of succeeding.
So here we go: the 7 tenets of a great minimalist UX that your startup can’t afford to ignore.
1 – Know the Users’ Goals
Whether you have an important task to accomplish, or you’re just looking to be entertained, you have some kind of objective or preference motivating you for every single action you take online: every piece you read, every form you fill, and every link you click.
When you clicked on the link to visit this article, you had a goal in mind. It seems reasonable to guess that you were curious to learn about minimalist UX (but let me know if I’m wrong there), which means that the number one objective (the raison d’etre) for the content you’re reading right now is to provide relevant information about minimalist UX.
Because this is long-form content in a fairly unhurried context, there’s no need for a breakneck pace of max-two-syllable words and nothing but bullet points— but I still had to get to mentioning UX fairly quickly so you didn’t start to think you’d accidentally clicked the wrong link.
UX is a chain, with every step having the objective of moving the user to the next one. When a user takes a step ahead, what they find there should follow logically from the link that led them there. If you click on a PPC ad that says “Buy Red Shoes Today!” and you reach a page that only offers blue shoes, or isn’t taking orders until tomorrow, or doesn’t sell shoes at all, it’s fair to say you won’t be returning to that particular site.
What lies at the end of a full UX journey should be a combination of what the user wants and what you want. If you don’t know what the user wants—what their goals are, what their preferences are—then you’ll have a very difficult time putting together a value proposition that really hooks them.
2 – Provide or Redirect
You rush into a hospital clutching your chest, having realized that you’re suffering a massive heart attack, and stumble towards the first member of staff you see. Your goal: get emergency medical help. You don’t want the staff member to talk to you about recent television, or ask irrelevant questions, or hand you a questionnaire. You want them to do one of two things:
- Provide emergency medical assistance
- Get you to someone who can can provide aforementioned medical assistance
Those are the only two options that matter to you, and if they do anything other than one of those things, you’re hardly going to remain in their company. You’re going to summon whatever energy you have left to keep going until someone will give you what you need.
I call this the ‘provide or redirect’ tenet. Every single section of your UX should give the user what they need or point them in the right direction (ideally elsewhere in your UX design). The moment you lose sight of this concept and drift towards vanity features that don’t offer anything they user cares about is the moment that you also start to lose their attention.
What if you inevitably reach a point at which there’s nothing on your website that can meaningfully help the user? Do you just sweep past it? I wouldn’t advise it. As long as you don’t link them to a direct competitor, send them elsewhere for the resource they need (and in the existing window – there’s a back button for when they’re done). They’ll appreciate the inherent selflessness of your external linking, and it will work out in your favor in the long term.
3 – Be Readily Digestible
Some people are very forgiving of issues with their purchased meals. They can find hunks of bone in their stew, pick them out, and continue eating without issuing a word of complaint. But most people won’t accept that kind of situation. They’ll stop eating, alert the wait staff, and likely abandon the eatery entirely unless suitably compensated.
When you’re making your way through a digital user journey, you’re not held back by the need to actually get up and walk out if you’re unhappy with the experience, or by concerns about being seen as needlessly dramatic. If you find the content equivalent of a hunk of bone (which is to say a lump of content that you can’t mentally digest), you’ll be perfectly free to leave and search for a better experience elsewhere.
As such, split your content into digestible pieces, each fitting into the bigger picture and providing at least some small measure of value to the page it’s on. Avoid hyper-dense paragraphs, obtuse navigation elements, and anything that’s very likely to leave someone confused at first glance.
You also need to take a close look at your basic visual styling elements: the fonts you use, your color scheme, and how you size everything up. An old-fashioned calligraphy font might lend your design a very classy feel, but it’s a bit more important that users can actually read the text.
4 – Make Requests Sparingly
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Oh, you don’t want to do those things? Yeah, that makes sense. The more things I ask you to do, the less likely you are to do any of them at all. It’s asking too much, taking too many liberties with your attention and being totally blatant with the phrasing.
Designers dole out requests with the best of intentions. Since the user is unlikely to take any specified option, then surely giving them a range of options will hugely increase the chances of them converting! Well… no.
If your friend asks you to lend them a small sum of money, you might do it. If they ask you to lend them a small sum of money, or look after their cat while they take a trip, or polish their boots, or recommend them for a job, then you’ll conclude that the specific action doesn’t matter— they just want to get something for nothing.
You have to make requests and suggest actions to get value from a user’s journey through your system, but do so very carefully. Pick your moments and configure every option for maximum possible impact.
Also, if you’ve asked them for information once, do not ask for it again. Nothing sours goodwill faster than requiring a user to enter their email address several times during a signup process. Allow users to login through their social media accounts and they’ll greatly appreciate it.
5 – Keep Quality High
User loyalty is massively important. In truth, it’s quite difficult to overstate how much more valuable a loyal customer is than a new one. And while you can build user confidence in the short term by telling them everything they want to hear, it isn’t a winning strategy. You have to genuinely demonstrate that you merit their trust.
That means no shortcuts, no sloppy copy, no plagiarism, and no tricks. You must create a UX that reassures the user with truthful highlights, familiar direction, and content that’s both accurate and up-to-date. Consider ‘all killer, no filler’ your objective.
Why is this such a big deal for minimalist UX and not just UX in general? It’s simple. With minimal UX, you have less content, and everything you include stands out, getting complete attention from the user. If it isn’t up to par, it has nowhere to hide, and there’s no way in hell that the user will miss it.
If you’re not sure how to work out where exactly the quality lies, go to the users. Find your audience and ask them directly if a given section or piece of content is useful to them. Tally up all the data and see what ends up on the chopping block. If the worst-performing chunk is something important to the business, then it clearly needs a lot more work. Make some changes and try it again— if you get it wrong ten times before you get it right, so be it.
6 – Strive for Parsimony
a : the quality of being careful with money or resources
b : the quality or state of being stingy
Add up unnecessary effort expended in the design process, out-of-control spending, bloated pages with sluggish loading times, and the frustration built up by users who struggle to work out how to proceed, and you get a potent cocktail of damaging wastefulness.
That’s why parsimony is an important goal for a minimalist UX project. It’s all about using no more resources than you absolutely need to. ‘All killer, no filler’ doesn’t apply just to the content you provide— it’s also relevant to the basic elements you include in your design.
For example, if you’re including a complex navigation where a simple one would suffice, you’d better have a very compelling reason beyond simply that you like it better. A high-resolution glamor shot is important for a product page but probably not worth it otherwise, and an ornate widget might run on some fancy code but really isn’t worth adding to your homepage (visitors aren’t going to care about your HTML5 skills).
If you need a little more motivation to sacrifice some satisfying but impractical creative design ideas, appeal to your inner laziness. It’s about taking the path of least resistance. Design a parsimonious UX that gets the job done nicely without busting your budget or soaking up your time, then work on a side project to develop your skills and satisfy that creative itch.
7 – Keep Refining
Did you think that you could built a great minimalist UX and then leave it to run in perpetuity, its perfection secured and unable to be touched by the ravages of time and the incremental advancement of technological and design standards? Because you can’t. There is no perfect UX, no design that can’t be changed for the better in some tiny way.
Every time your business changes slightly, attracting a marginally different user base, your hypothetical ideal UX shifts a little. Google updates an algorithm, and all of a sudden your format is falling short of SEO magic. The internet is an ever-shifting thing and you need to check your foundation on a regular basis so you don’t find the ground crumbling beneath you.
You can get a good idea of which way the wind is blowing by seeing what the biggest businesses in the world are doing in an effort to get ahead of upcoming changes. You don’t have to keep up with them at the forefront of technology, of course— just arming yourself with an awareness of what you’ll eventually need to do will give you time to decide how exactly you want to go about it.
Consider that there are still companies out there with websites that aren’t mobile-friendly years after it became an obvious priority and DIY website builders with responsive templates became the norm. When you can set up a cheap web-shop in a day, why hang on so tightly to old work? Maybe people once turned their noses up at easy CMS options like Shopify or WordPress, but that stigma is gone. Efficiency is the name of the game now.
Perhaps those holdout companies believed that they had achieved desktop design mastery, and were unwilling to sacrifice it to start again— but you have to be willing to change anything when times demand it, no matter how invested you are in preserving your work. Remember the sunk cost fallacy and don’t throw good money after bad.
I certainly hope you’ve found this sweep through the best practices of minimalist UX quite enlightening! As counter-intuitive as it might feel, creating a great minimalist UX is actually a lot more intensive than including every feature you can think of, because you have to develop a well-rounded understanding of what needs to be there and what you ought to leave out.
By following these 7 broad tenets, you can trim the fat from your UX, making your users much happier and ultimately giving you a much stronger awareness of what really matters in a digital interface, thereby setting you up for years of steady improvement.
(Or you can get swept away in the heady vibe of a new business venture, reason that you know far more about solid interface structuring than your users do, build a massively-complex UX journey that you can barely understand yourself, then conclude that your audience is to blame when you push it live and get hundreds of complaints on the first day. Up to you!)
Are you working on your first UX at the moment, or thinking about how you make improvements to your existing designs? Great UX isn’t achieved overnight, so don’t feel that you have to get everything polished right away.
Just start making practical changes, and commit to incremental improvement for the future. A few years down the line, your UX could be far better than you can imagine today— but you have to start now!
Kayleigh Alexandra is a content writer for Micro Startups — a site dedicated to spreading the word about startups and small businesses of all shapes and sizes. Visit the blog for the latest micro biz news and inspiring entrepreneurial stories. Follow us on Twitter @getmicrostarted.