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Beauty in Simplicity: Avoiding Overdesign on the Web

Eric Groves

By Eric Groves

“‘Think simple,’ as my old master used to say — meaning to reduce the whole of its parts into the simplest terms, getting back to first principles.”
-Frank Lloyd Wright

As designers, we have this really cool power. We can control people’s actions. Like, when a user first lands on a website. Where will they look? What will they click? That all-important first step is heavily dictated by the site’s design. It leads you — visually — and cues you toward the content you’re trying to find.

So what about sites that are confusing and don’t help users navigate? The kinds of sites that feel busy, cluttered, and overwhelming. We call that overdesign.

At its core, overdesign is usually the result of a lack of vision and goals for the site. Too much importance is placed on everything, which means importance is actually placed on nothing at all.

Lack of vision is not necessarily a lack of strategy. Strategy is the plan that is developed from the beginning of the project. It’s good intention. But, a lack of vision means that somewhere along the way, the site creator failed at implementing the strategy through a clear, organized design.

Take Target, for example. The retailer just recently redesigned their site from a strong, clean, organized site into a mash of elements that distract rather than lead the user. From top to bottom, the site is crammed with ads and features that compete for attention. While they have a large “featured item” section, they have chosen to fill all of their remaining real estate with six different sections, without a clear hierarchy. Their goals seem to be to show as much as possible without any prioritization.

Screenshot of Target.com's recent redesign.

Overdesign manifests itself in a number of ways on the new site:

  1. Their main product section is now a cluster of content — it’s an overload.
  2. Their products are mixed with advertisements that all have the same feel.
  3.  The lack of hierarchy is topped by the overuse and lack of thought in their typeface choices.
  4. The main navigation is illegible and their display faces are way overused to the point that there is no longer a distinction between sections.

All content is important in its own way. But, not all content holds the same level of importance. For any business with a product, their main goal is to sell that product. Each piece of content (or product, in this case) has a relative value based on goals and audiences. Content has its place.  It’s our job to determine that place for each component of a site and then translate it into a design that makes it clear and simple for the user. In that regard, Target has failed by putting too much emphasis on too many page elements.

A natural response would be, “all of our content is important — how can we say which parts of the site deserve the most attention?” But, that’s the wrong mentality. Instead, consider your site from the view of the user.

The user wants to be able to navigate through a site without being forced to search for information. For them, there are clear priorities — even if they aren’t exactly the same for each person. And, for your business, certain users (like potential customers) have priority over others (potential applicants).

This is where prioritization and hierarchy come into play. Establishing relative importance for both audiences and content — what’s most important, second-most, etc — and then organizing them to create a design with these priorities in mind will help develop a clear vision for how your site’s design can help — rather than hurt — the user experience.

Don’t fall into the misconception that all your content holds the same importance. Push your vision to the forefront and keep it simple.



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