What design principles can be used to achieve simplicity without diminishing the ability of the user to use an interface efficiently for complex tasks?

Specifically, I'm wondering which key design principles I can use to achieve more with less. Principles that allow a designer to cover complex interface features with simplified, minimalist, design.

  • Big question! I'd suggest finding a copy of Universal Principles of Design and reading the sections titled Flexibility-Usability Tradeoff, Layering, Progressive disclosure, Advance organiser... then maybe browse the "see also"s Apr 16, 2014 at 16:54
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    Key design principles that would help: Magic. Apr 16, 2014 at 21:35
  • @VolkerSiegel Magic? You mean to tell me you think that there are no such things as key principles by which we can establish good design practice? Apr 16, 2014 at 21:41
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    I urge you to read this: adaptivepath.com/ideas/in-defense-of-hard
    – benteh
    Apr 17, 2014 at 0:36
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    @JonathanTodd I closed this for a duplicate. I would hope to see you in chat like Bakabaka has mentioned in hopes we can discuss this and possibly find a way that we can improve your current question over the other.
    – user9447
    May 8, 2014 at 13:43

6 Answers 6


Having minimal buttons is the signature of a clean and simple interface. Find your top few interactions and give them buttons so they can be 1-click operations.

If those interactions have advanced features, give them a toggle/dropdown/submenu of some sort, ideally 2-click operations.

Anything you expect your users to rarely click can be deeper in the interaction. You don't want 100 operations as the level/submenu as it will become cluttered. Based on your overall complexity, stagger your levels to keep a balance of levels/submenus vs overcrowding each one.

Try and keep everything but the rarest of interactions within 3-clicks if possible. Your groupings of functions may help you decide where they should go. Always group similar actions and try and combine functionality when possible (ie: a toggle switch instead of both an on and off switch)

Take a look at a few sites and count the clicks to the tasks you typically do. A well designed site will take typical user interactions into account. Everything you'd typically interact with should be in an intuitive location without looking cluttered.

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    There are some things which are rarely done but when they are, they are done 1000 times (mass data entry etc). Consider this when burying functionality.
    – horatio
    Apr 16, 2014 at 19:40
  • I think you could sum this up as 'prioritize tasks, and surface the common ones"
    – DA01
    Apr 17, 2014 at 0:06
  • Another answer based on a common design principle. Perfect. +1 - Now if any one of these answers could just incorporate 3 of these principles into an answer, we'd have a solid, complete answer. May 8, 2014 at 10:51
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    @JonathanTodd I think you're asking too much out of answers to these types of questions. Lots of GD questions are simply going to produce several subjective responses. It's your duty to pick one, not the duty of those taking the time to answer to write extensive summaries of all the subjective responses.
    – DA01
    May 8, 2014 at 13:51

To make your application easy to understand, use common elements and symbols that people are familiar with, rather than making them learn new symbols. Organize the system so that it walks the user through a process (e.g. step 1 should clearly navigate to step 2). Keep your navigation consistent (e.g. always keep your "save to draft" and "submit" buttons in the same order). If you have a dashboard or home screen, organize it well so that similar processes are grouped together.

The book, Don't Make Me Think, has great advice. Another good book is Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?.

  • Very good example: Widely known or obvious icons. This is exactly the sort of answer I'm looking for. Maybe you could elaborate on a few other design aspects in order to provide a more complete answer? May 8, 2014 at 10:49

You ask how?

For many people there are many different ways.
This is what I do:

Write down the functions of your application.
Then start putting the functions into "categories", for example:
functions: chat, add friends, ignore list, play video. I can put "chat", "add friends" and "ignore list" into the same category, because they are related.

After this you can create a wireframes, a simple block version of your app and you can put your categories in.
Then just have fun with the graphic design.

For a complex application I would keep the graphic design open and simple. Maybe with the user of colors for each category, or simple icons. You need to make it look as if it is very easy.

I hope this answer helps you.
As I've said earlier in this answer, everyone has his own way of making an overview of their project.

Good luck.

  • Please focus on specific, key principles of graphic design so the answer might have a solid, complete, objective foundation, rather than simply a helpful, suggestive one May 8, 2014 at 10:53

I need to design an interface that clients don't have to spend more than a few minutes learning to use, but still offer advanced control of the the features that the application offers.

These, I would argue, are unrealistic requirements. At least, they are unrealistic until some user research is performed.

So that's where I'd start. The design principle I'd go with is user-centered-design.

Upon researching the needs and habits of the users, however, we may very well come to the conclusion that the tasks simply are complex, and that trying to force them into a 'simple' UI may actually be a detriment to the user. To figure that out, I'd use A/B testing.

In summary, I'd leverage User Experience testing and research principles first and foremost.

  • Yet another important principle of graphic design well summarized and applied to the question. Could you incorporate a few of key principles that best relate to this in order to achieve a balanced, well rounded answer founded objectively? May 8, 2014 at 10:55

Focus on meaning. Here are some thoughts:

To make something meaningful, you need to profile your target user: What does she know about this new task? Are there similar tasks (perhaps from other domains) that can acts as metaphors or illustration?

Simplicity should be the result of making things meaningful. Don't focus on simplicity. Simplicity can hide the real thing and make things harder to understand: less meaningful.

Be forgiving, and allow users freedom to play and do things in different ways. This is much more work to implement, but will make users happy because it gives control.

Keep a good eye on locus of attention. We humans are easily distracted and focus on one thing at a time. It's therefore making things meaningful if an interface takes this into account.

Read books, and learn about human nature, psychology, ergonomics, ... Interesting company is IDEO.

It's a staccato answer, but I hope it sets you off. Good luck.


Key principles to achieve a good interface with complex content... I am here going to assume more of an application than a standard company website (what, where, who, when).

First; as indirectly mentioned in a comment above; make things as simple as possible but not one bit simpler. The article In defence of hard has some really good points in that department. Do not dumb down, if it is complex then do not force it to be simple. Complex is good. Complex is interesting. Done well.

As an analogy: creating something - anything for 10 year-olds does not mean to boil things down to the lowest common denominator. 10 year-olds are used to that there are a lot of stuff they do not know and have to work out. This also goes for adults. Spoonfeeding simplicity is dumbing down both the user and the creator. Important things gets lost.

  • First, I would say: use elements that are known to users in general. To navigate space in some way, the principle elements of Google maps and/or Google Earth is pretty much universally understood. Plus, minus, zoom, move, overview etc .
  • Also, the principles of computer games such as first-person adventure should also be pretty clear.
  • To navigate time, there are timelines galore. And to combine time-space well can be very difficult but absolutely doable.

Using elements that most people are familiar with; there is no need to reinvent the wheel over and over. Most things have been done or attempted. Stand on the shoulders of giants, learn what complex interfaces fail and rethink the concept.

The art is to keep complexity, but not overwhelm the new user. Display the basics immediately, then increase options gently.

That, methinks, is the basic principles.


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