Simplicity is an illusion

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Simplicity is an illusion

Hi, guys. My name is Alex Edwards. I’m the lead UX designer here at RocketMill on the creative team. I am here to talk about why simplicity is simply an illusion.


When we think of simplicity these days, there are a few key examples that we think of. We think of Google, the masses of delivering information that’s easy to digest. Facebook, a site with an incomprehensible audience size who can connect anytime, anywhere, and Amazon, the powerhouse for e-commerce at your fingertips.

We all want to achieve similar success to these businesses. All of these services have become household names, but how have they all got there? Well, pretty simply, the most obvious one is revenue. As a business, success is measured through revenue, and according to Statistica, in 2017, these three businesses turned over $330 billion. Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?

Businesses that have mastered simplicity

To get revenue, you need audiences, and those audiences, they need something to use. Particularly with these businesses, this usage has actually become habitual, and that’s their key part of their success. The need for these products has now become instinctive, and Google is now used as a verb. You Google something, you don’t search for it. Facebook is where you instantly go to share that moment that’s just happened with your loved ones, and Amazon is the on-the-go price comparison. “Actually, I need that. Yeah, I’ll have it tomorrow.”

These have just become part of our everyday lives, but an underlying part of this habitual use is their simplicity. These services are so simple, easy to use, and instinctive, that you just can’t argue with them. That kind of goes against everything we know, because businesses aren’t simple. In their fundamental nature, they’re complex beasts that need reigning in, so what’s going on under the hood of all these businesses?


Well, if we look at Google, they’re a company with a system that makes connections between thousands, millions of web pages, then takes your request, trolls through those connections to find what it believes to be the most relevant piece of information for you, and delivers it.


Facebook takes all of the content produced by sources you as a user have said you’re interested in, before using various factors to weight them and then to order these in what is now the timeline, in an order that is most likely to get engaged.


Then Amazon, well, this beast goes beyond the browser, and they use technology to gain their efficiencies. They use computers to smartly store products, remember exactly where they are, and then rather having humans package them, the robots move them around, take them to the team where they get boxed up, and then it’s back to the computer again for them to be on the delivery trucks, and to end up at our door.

How are these platforms so simple? There’s nothing simple about them. If there’s so much going on, how are they perceived as so clean and easy? Well, I propose it’s all actually an illusion, that this doesn’t actually exist, and it’s a feeling that you get. Simplicity isn’t a tick box, you can’t just turn on the simplicity button, and it’s all done. It’s a combination of factors, and it’s something that you feel inside. If it’s felt, then it must be crafted. It has to be delicately crafted with a hell of a lot of skill. Google, Facebook, and Amazon have done a fantastic job at getting their users to think their platforms are simple, that they’re easy, and they don’t even see the work that’s going on behind the hood. It just works.

How to reveal the illusion

Unfortunately for us, things are a bit more of a juggling act. With multiple teams working in multiple locations on different things with different platforms, it’s easy for things to go astray, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means we might have to work a little bit harder. So what factors can we take, and what things can we learn to take into our day-to-day work to try and make things simple?


Well, the first one is consistency. This is one of the first key areas in simplicity, and let’s take GOV UK as our example to follow through this. So GOV UK is a beautiful site, like there’s no denying that. They’ve done a great job tying together all these various departments around the UK. You can’t say it’s simple.

This site literally ties together the country. It does a great job of making these departments accessible, and you can interact with them easily and in a consistent manner, whether that be applying for a passport, registering to vote, or checking state pension age, it’s all consistently displayed in a legible format.

That even goes through to forms, again, with passports, registering to vote, or checking your state pension age, it’s all in one format that is predictable. When you go back to GOV UK, you know what you’re going to get, and you know how to interact. Now, this is extremely hard to achieve, but with these aesthetic and functionality considerations, it just works to make sure there is a single experience and a single site behaviour for everything within this website.

Relevant content

Under all of this comes relevant content. Now, this is a key piece for creating our illusion, and it doesn’t have to come from algorithms such as Google, and Facebook, and Amazon all use. We need to think ahead of where the user is, and anticipate their needs, and guide them using targeted landing page copy, as well as well-placed tool tips and links. We can arm our users with the tool they need to succeed, and then they are more likely to complete their task.

So let’s have a look once again at GOV UK. We’ve got applying for a passport, if we look here, there is relevant information highlighted and shown at the time when someone needs it. We’re not showing this on the homepage, we’re not showing this on a random page around the corner that’s five clicks away, we’re showing this at the point of actual need. We are anticipating the need of this user, and we are communicating to them clearly what they are required to do.

Now, if you ever need to register as a buyer mass supply, there is a page for that. They also have some handy little snippets and tips on here.

This handy little tool tip, it actually tells us that we’re not going to stay on the GOV UK site. This is important because this happens quite often on our sites, we have to take people to third-party sites. We have to take people to payment gateways, and we have to take them here, and we have to take them there. Unfortunately, we’re not in one place all the time, but this tiny little piece of text reassures the user where they’re going to go, and it means that if things aren’t quite right, they understand why. We’ve given them the tools to understand what’s going to happen.

Bite-sized information

Now, this nicely leads on to bite-sized information. When it comes to framing our relevant content, we need to keep it snappy. Long things aren’t simple. GOV UK has recently started playing with this kind of layout. This is getting into student finance, the step-by-step process. So if we have a quick look at the page, we can see that there is an overview of the steps that are available.

There are little show buttons so that at the relevant stages, people can get to the information they need. When you expand the section, richer information is provided, but if we have all these sections expanded on page load, it’s overwhelming. You wouldn’t read it. You wouldn’t interact with it, you’d just completely be like, “Nope. I give up. I don’t need to go to university. I do not want student finance. Nope. Leave now.”

But by allowing users to interact at the points that are relevant to them, it’s a gradual reveal. It’s relevant content at the time that they need in an easy manner. You’ve probably noticed with each of these pages, each page has a clear objective. Now, all of us just want to know what’s going on, what the point of things is, why we should be doing something.

Purpose and goals

Your business has a goal, your products have a goal, and taking us through the landing pages is really key. Even each section of a landing page, each section of your process should have a purpose. If it doesn’t have a purpose, don’t put it there. It’s just too much time and effort for everyone; the user, for you, for development. Just get rid of it. It’s so much easier.

Looking at the page here, recycling collections. All of us want to know our recycling collection date. Well, this page has one very clear purpose. You put in your postcode, you get it. That’s it. Clear objective. If that isn’t the objective for you, there are relevant links on the side to take you to where you might want to be instead. It’s not a complete dead end, and there are backup options to make sure that you are going where you want to go.


Now, all of these factors all build towards creating this feeling of ease. We’re making it easy. The behaviour becomes familiar, the content becomes relevant and digestible, and every piece contributes to the goal. There’s no fluff, and you’ve managed to make it simple, and then you have successfully completed the illusion. Thank you.