The Austin Chronicle

Simplexity Rising

Web usability reveals itself to be a game of hide-and-seek

By James Renovitch, February 29, 2008, Screens

Scouring MySpace for old high school classmates, I find a promising search result. Looks familiar; hasn't changed much; surely he'll make me feel better about my current lot in life. Click and boom: 15 embedded videos and 10 slide shows later, my browser's stuck loading, my co-workers notice my loafing, and I can't get the screen to disappear. Thanks, guy-in-my-class-who-used-too-much-hair-product for designing such an overachieving page.

Luckily, the professionals still believe that less is more. Take Dylan Schiemann of SitePen, an open-source Web applications firm, and his South by Southwest talk titled Your Mom 2.0. Not satisfied with conjecture as to what moms – stereotypically the bottom of the tech-savvy barrel – can and can't do online, real-life mothers will be navigating sites to see what's useful and what's clutter to them. The idea that "mom" is synonymous with "tech-retarded" will also fall to the wayside, no doubt.

A difficulty with casual Web surfers like these is finding out what they want from a site. Schiemann's seen it before, saying: "Users don't always know what they want. They just know what they're suffering through now. They might see the problem on the surface but not see the solution lying deeper."

To say simplicity and usability are one and the same is to oversimplify. Schiemann points to Craigslist with its reliance on exhausting text and lists. Simple it may be, but the sheer number of options has Web novices searching for the back button. A balance between guidance and choices is in order: guidance for the fresh blood and choices for the children born and raised by computers. Both groups mouse happier in an intuitive environment, but old hands strive to make their browsing more efficient with tools that look more like signs reading "not for you" to the neophytes.

Maybe there isn't a tech Rosetta stone that will speak to both groups, but the same information should get to both groups in the end. Liz Danzico, SXSW panelist and information architect, finds that looking at content with fresh eyes is mandatory, because that's the same view a first-time user will have. Drawing from her early years working as a writer of technical manuals, she has some perspective on the subject, insisting that it's easier to organize information you know nothing about. That way, be it installing a dishwasher or intuitively finding that specific shawl on Amazon, the designer sees the information in much the same way as the user. And while she's "always interested in making information simpler and more easily accessible," Danzico obeys the law of diminishing returns and knows when to say when. When information becomes clutter, it's time to turn back.

"Complexity wants to find its way into Web projects all the time," agrees Adam DuVander, whose blog ( is called Simplicity Rules. "Things get from simple to complex much faster then they did before. Only because of all the things that are possible."

A simple facade masking vast amounts of complex knowledge usually signifies smooth Web surfing ahead. Google is the oft-cited king of simplicity, with its iconic front page. Given the mind-rupturing amount of information sifted through with complex algorithms, the complexity of the information the simple text box hides makes it a prime example of "simplexity."

DuVander's beloved simplicity is often eclipsed by the desire of regular users to make a website more efficient. In an effort to appease these users, a designer can add more functions at the risk of alienating new users. The ideal for DuVander is a site that can appeal to his universal user: "Make me effective, and make me productive at the level I'm at right now, and let me add on to it." A textbook case of simplexity, if there ever was one.

This is all a long way of saying to the MySpace users of the world, "Please put your pics in a folder. I'll look at them if I'm interested." Want to show me a YouTube video of your favorite Family Guy clip? Just post the link, and I'll click when I find the time. Right now, I'm just trying to see if you're single.  


Core Conversation: Your Mom 2.0 March 10, 5pm, Ballroom E

Getting Unstuck: From Desktop to Device March 8, 2pm, Room 5

Taking Your Web Talent to the Video Game Industry March 8, 2pm, Room 10

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