Minimalist Web Design: The Scent of Information
Let's start this article on minimalist web design with a quote from the amazing Steve Jobs:
“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
If you know anything about Steve Jobs or Apple product design, it's probably the three-click rule.
During the design of the iPod, Jobs put a problematic task to Apple designers: that the iPod interface is so simply designed he could get to any song on the device in only three clicks.
The three-click rule has a counterpart in minimalist web design with the same general idea.
A visitor to your website should be able to get to anything on your site within three clicks, lest they lose interest in what they were searching for and abandon your site entirely.
But this rule simply doesn't hold true, according to studies done by Internet researchers.
And what's more?
Users weren't even less satisfied, according to consulting firm User Interface Engineering, when they had to click for more than three times (sometimes up to 25 times).
In fact, the ability of users to find the products they were looking for went up when the number of clicks it took to find it increased from three to four.
So, if it's not the number of clicks that makes a website's design minimalist and easy to use, what is the defining characteristic of how people navigate a website?
Quite possibly, it's information scent.
It turns out simplicity in design is not so much about how many steps are required for a visitor to follow the path to their destination, but how easy it is for them to follow that path.
That's where information scent comes into play.
Information Scent (or How We Search the Web)
If you're not familiar with the concept of “information scent,” it is a relatively fascinating psychological concept, which compares the way we seek information on the web to the way animals hunt for food in the wild.
As part of Peter Pirolli's “foraging theory,” information scent is made up of those things we use to track information online.
If a user wants to buy black pants, for instance, the user might click on (track) an image of the perfect black pants from the search results, or the user might click on (record) a link with a description of the type of pants they desire to buy.
Once the user clicks, they could find themselves on a page that lets them buy or otherwise take action (eat), or they may find themselves on a site like Pinterest, which has endless images of black pants but doesn't allow them to accomplish the task at hand.
At this point, the trail goes cold, and the user recognises there is no food on the page and they will have to go down a different path.
Of course, a person's intent online when looking up black pants isn't always to buy.
Moreover, if a user simply wants to look at all of the designs of black pants the world has to offer, Pinterest provides some very fertile feeding ground.
Foraging theory, in general, states that, in the wild, animals take in as much food as they can from one food-rich location.
Finding food, and chasing and capturing that food for carnivores, requires energy, so it makes no sense to go seeking food in new places if an animal already knows where there is an abundant supply.
It is only when the polar bear or pigeon has exhausted the food supply in an area, or danger moves in, that it moves on.
The same thing is correct, Peter Pirolli posits, of people searching online.
Finding useful information on the Internet requires effort, so once a person sees a quality source, that person continues to consume as much information as they can from that source before moving on.
Like an animal foraging in the wild, the person gives up on that fruitful source only “when the gains it can expect from leaving outweigh the gains it can expect from staying,” or when that person has depleted all the available information, or the data no longer meets his or her needs.
While this is an endorsement for having a site rich with quality content that provides a tasty meal to visitors, it is also a reminder that creating a quality path that leads visitors from one morsel of information to the next is equally essential.
Minimalist Web Design is about readability and Information Scent
So, how do you create a minimalist web design that still provides visitors with a rich feeding ground?
It's not easy.
Even Steve Jobs, whom many consider a genius in his field, recognised that simplicity is one of the most challenging things to achieve.
But simplicity matters.
A great deal, according to web design assessment software company EyeQuant.
In a series of user studies, the company found that decluttered pages are more successful across a range of different business types.
As page clarity increases, so do clicks, conversions, and revenue per visitor.
A clean webpage is an effective webpage.
It's just a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff, and then sorting the wheat so visitors to your page don't have to dig through a whole field's worth of it.
Decluttering by Focusing on Outcome
That's a lot of background information, I know, but it provides a good starting point for minimalist web design.
One way you can begin to eliminate clutter from your site is to ask yourself the simple question, “What do I want a visitor to do once they reach this page?”
For operators of retail sites, the most common answer to this question is almost certainly to buy.
Many retailers include other “featured products,” “also bought with” products, and similar addendums, hoping a visitor will purchase more items if they are presented with them.
Not so, according to EyeQuant's compilation of decluttering success stories found online.
When the VeggieTales website removed “Related Products” from the sidebar of their product pages, along with excess product information, the clarity of the pages improved and revenue per visitor rose 28%.
Tip 1: If you want a visitor to buy, make sure buying is the dominant intent of the page.
Decluttering by Eliminating Information
You might think giving visitors all the pertinent information about your company or services at one time is the best way to keep them on your site and turn them into dedicated readers or customers.
This is not generally the case.
An onslaught of information can be painful for our minds to process, making it more difficult to figure out which way to go next to follow the information scent that brought us to the page in the first place.
By eliminating all information that is not necessary to the page (don't worry, you can stick your company's remarkable origin story behind an “About” link), you make it easier for a user to take the action you wish them to take.
The type of effect a less cluttered landing page with a more explicit call to action can have is strikingly highlighted in online web specialist Russell Lee's experiment with the homepage of web-based math testing and assessment company MapleTA.
By removing most of the information from the homepage with a minimalist web design, especially that above the fold, and offering a simplistic explanation of the site's offerings with a prominent sign-up button, Lee increased conversions by a whopping 633%.
Tip 2: Less is more.
Decluttering without Sacrificing Information
It can be difficult to determine what information is wheat and what is chaff, and even more difficult to decide which stalks of wheat are the highest quality and most likely to appeal to site visitors in a minimalist web design.
However, using information scent as a basis for design, three simple questions can lead you down the most effective path.
What brought the visitor to this page? / What does this site provide?
What does the visitor hope to accomplish here? / What do I want them to do next?
What information must they have to take action? / What do I tell them to convince them?
These questions can help you see that much of the information you provide on your company web pages is extraneous.
That's not to say it's not important.
It's just not meaningful to the user at that particular moment.
If a user lands on a hotel's homepage, they likely seek to book a room or research the property.
Most hotel site design meets these needs above the fold with a booking box and links to essential information, such as room types and amenities.
The user needs nothing else.
Some seemingly extraneous information about your company can prove essential.
Visitors don't care that two million people stayed at your hotel before them.
They might care if the hotel has a storied history, however.
Another way of phrasing the question, “What do I tell them to convince them?” might be “What sets this company apart from its competitors?”
Whatever the answer to that question provides some of the most quality, succulent stalks of wheat you can offer your visitors.
Tip 3: If you did the tile work in Buckingham Palace, that's probably a selling point for potential clients.
It's a delicate balance in minimalist web design, leaving enough white space on a page, while still plying visitors with strong visual and text clues to follow the information scent to their destinations.
By focusing on outcome and distinction, you can eliminate content that does not have immediate utility on each page, provide the visitor's a clear visual pathway to their destination, and, hopefully, offer them a satisfying enough meal they'll revisit when they get hungry again.