Nov 2 2012
Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin host a podcast called Build & Analyze where they talk about development, Apple and the App Store, coffee and other interesting topics.
Generally speaking, the development talk is somewhat more complicated than I can understand. Their discussion of server technology goes above my head, and, although I grasp the basics of programming, I don’t directly benefit from listening to a show about it.
But who listens to podcasts to gain technical knowledge? It’s not exactly the best way to parse information—so instead, perhaps obviously, podcasts are about personality.
The meat of the show mostly comes from Marco’s work on Instapaper, an app for iOS. But a few weeks ago he launched a new app, a periodical called The Magazine.
In the shows following he gave honest reasons for the decisions he made in the development of the app. He shared the names of his designers, his relative costs, production time, inspiration, etc.
The app is pretty simple, at least from a casual observance. Users pay two bucks a month, and every two weeks have access to a new set of articles written by nerdy people.
The app isn’t what I’m interested in though, the most interesting part of episode 100 is when Marco talks about his original decision to not include a settings screen in The Magazine, and the need to revisit that decision.
The best part about this discussion is that it shows the beauty of minimalism, it shows minimalism as being about something other than aesthetics, about more than having a small amount of detail present.
Minimalism, especially in design, is not about having few things, it’s about having the right things. It’s about not distracting users, viewers, or participants with extraneous information, but to do it well is difficult.
Marco wanted to make the app as small as possible so that it would be easier to support, easier to maintain, easier to understand, and, hopefully, easier to use.
Unfortunately, removing the settings screen meant he had to place the elements that would normally have been there somewhere else, or remove them entirely. Some users were pissed that some choices were removed: specifically users who wanted to choose a different browser to open links in. Other users were confused by having to select ‘share’ to log out of an additional service.
The solution in Marco’s case was to add a settings screen. Is it less minimal? More or less. Is it more usable? Probably. Better? That’s where the fun of the debate is.
For an incredibly long time Windows users had to click a button labeled ‘Start’ to be able to stop running their computer. The goal of this design was not too different from the goals of minimalism: remove extraneous menus, put the main functions underneath the same button so they take less room and become more familiar to users.
Of course, the obvious solution to this problem was not to expand that funky ass controller into several buttons, but rather to relabel the button. In (VISTA?) Microsoft removed the word start and simply labeled it with the Windows logo.
My point here is not that their design drastically improved, nor that their design was awful to begin with. In fact, my point at the outset of this post was the opposite of something that I have believed for a long time: design is not about making objectively correct decisions about how a product should work, look, or act. In fact, more time in design is spent setting rules about how a product should behave and then exploring how it exists inside of those rules.
It’s not dissimilar to the way a good author creates expansive backstories, characters, and situations long before writing a novel. By setting rules for the situations and characters the characters can operate freely, with little or no interaction from the author. Authors often need to go back to adjust their rules, decide when to break or expand them, but the rules are set to guide the story, to prevent it from becoming just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Product makers need to work in the same way: with a product goal in mind, and a strong set of developed rules which will guide the product from conception through creation. Marco exposed some this when he spoke about the goals of removing the settings screen from The Magazine, but it is worth understanding just how the process works.
Generally, we call it ‘optimize for’ which is a bit of a misnomer, but applies to most (or perhaps all) fields of design. Designers optimize stuff for certain groups of people or certain actions.
The most obvious form of this is in targeting markets. The higher the specificity of the market the easier the choices can become.
One of my favorite design talks was given by a man who was charged with redesigning a pill package. As a standard first step he was exploring the existing products, including his client’s existing packaging.
What he found was standard, bright, trendy looking packages. They had stock photos of smiling families, big company names, they were eye catching.
Perhaps the other designers were underfunded, under-skilled, or under-motivated—whatever the case, they had created packages that looked right in place on the shelves of a local convenience store—but the primary market for these products were not the shoppers at the 7/11. The majority of the products were controlled substances, and thus, had to be distributed by pharmacists.
This leads to the obvious next step of the design process: ask the target audience what they want. Designers can’t bend to the demand of every consumer of course, but without even understanding the basic demands he was bound to end up with convenience store packaging.
So he asked pharmacists what information they needed on the packaging. Photos were out, of course, as were gigantic brand names. The pharmacists dealt with the boxes so regularly that they definitely didn’t need DrugCo shouting at them when they scanned for the important information; dosage and sizing and ingredients (and probably tons of other things that I can’t remember because this was a design talk, not a pharmaceutical pitch).
He also learned that the boxes were often stored in multiple orientations, so the information needed to be on several sides to provide flexibility in shelving.
In a roundabout way, he was talking about optimizing for the people handling the drugs the most: the pharmacists. Consumers didn’t really care about the packaging, and the people purchasing/distributing to pharmacies were likely to purchase from the spec sheets and the demands of the pharmacists, instead of the packaging.
There are many elements of creation that are obviously important to designers; cost of production, quality of construction and materials, ease of use, aesthetic beauty. As complicated as this list can be, the goals are almost always obvious. Lower the cost of production, use the best construction and materials, hire someone with taste to guide the beauty—and so on. The interesting part of design comes when the designer has to balance these options against each other (and thousands of other decisions).
This isn’t supposed to be a piece about optimization, but it is important to understand the mindset of designers before we explore Marco’s setting screen decision deeply.
Minimalist design is often confused with design that lacks adornment, mostly because minimalism generally abhors adornment. However, simply removing adornment for the sake of aesthetics is the same as adding adornment for the sake of beauty—and as much as I would love to condemn designers who add adornment for beauty, there is a time and place for it.
Minimalism is about reducing a design to the fundamental core, removing all elements that are a distraction from the main goal of the design. In some ways this is a perfect way to ‘optimize for’ a target. Minimalism can help make a product feel expensive, or trendy (optimizing for brand value) or make a product understandable (optimizing for user’s limited attention) or make a product expandable (optimizing for ease of future revisions).
The problem is that removing elements of a design is really hard. I loved episode 100 of Build & Analyze because Marco gave an easy to understand example of how designs that seem incredibly simple can take massive amounts of energy to get right.
It’s awesome to hear the process explained to a technical audience—and it’s important to remember that designs with less are generally more complicated than designs with more. In fact, the adage ‘less is more’ has been so co-opted that we have started saying ‘do more with less’.
It is possible to over-design, to place things in illogical locations, to get wrapped up in cutting important content, in the name of doing more with less. It is also possible to lazily cut content instead of finding the right way to incorporate it into a design.
The best designs are invisible—at least on first read. If a user spends time or energy considering how to do something, or needs to remember where something is, the design is struggling. Minimalism is about making every element of the design immediately clear, about providing the exact number of features, or the exact amount of information a user needs. Minimalism about a mutual trust between the designer and the user.