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Five killer ways to handle complexity

Handling complexity is part of designers' lives. But our end products must be intelligible, argues Gene Crawford

It may seem like Zen poetry, but something that has complexity and something complex to use or understand are very different things. As designers our job is to bring order to chaos when it comes to complexity; to make something easy to understand and quickly usable out of something complex by nature. We may be tasked with trimming steps between a user visiting a website and signing up for the service it's selling, or making an iPhone app easier to use. In both cases we must carve the complex out of all that complexity and present it in a way someone will be able to deal with.

Simple vs minimal

There is an ever growing desire by designers to make site designs minimal. We must not confuse designing something to be simple, or less complex to use or understand, with minimalism. Making something look 'minimal' doesn't mean it is devoid of complexity. When we find the balance between a design being visually pleasing, communicating why it exists and achieving the goals of the users it is designed for there isn't much else you can do. Whether you achieve this via a minimalist design or a different aesthetic approach doesn't matter.

Complexity in websites

With websites there will be two main focuses. First, how well a site communicates 'what', 'why' and 'how', and sometimes 'where'. Second, making the main action that you want the user to take obvious enough so they do it. We use many tools to achieve these aims: whether based in copy, graphics, interactions or technical execution, all stem from the root of making things less complex.

Here are five examples to check out...

01. Microsoft

The website for software monolith Microsoft breaks down the hundreds of products and complex information it wants you to discover into an easily scannable page of content.

02. Snowbird

The home of ski resort Snowbird uses delightful interactions to get across a lot of info at once – and almost makes you want to see weather reporting like this on major news websites.

03. Karma

Sometimes a complex story can be made simple, as with the Wi-Fi sharing service and device Karma. It uses brilliant short copy to get ideas across, as well as clearly thought out visuals.

04. Chartbeat

The real-time data analytics website for Chartbeat uses catchy headlines and smart animations to tell its story, making sense out of a pretty complex idea.

05. Instagram

The iPhone app Instagram for photo augmenting and sharing has a complex set of functions. The app has managed to boil it all down to a streamlined set of actions, thanks to a brilliant interface.

Words: Gene Crawford

Gene's mission is to work tirelessly at providing inspiration and insight for developers. His projects include www.unmatchedstyle.com and conferences such as www.convergese.com.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 240.

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