General Article

Less Is More - How to keep your website clutter-free

All glitz and fizz
The past was about 'bells and whistles'. Websites were designed to showcase the technology behind the web rather than to be an effective communications medium. Flash was used to "excite" and "engage" - its effect however was often the opposite. And web navigation was sometimes an experiment in obscurity making it almost impossible for the visitor to find their way around. Entertainment was the mantra rather than communication effectiveness.

We want it now
There are often only a handful of reasons or actions for which the majority of visitors will be at your site. They want to complete the task in hand e.g. find a price, book a ticket or get directions with minimum fuss.

Unless a site is quick and easy to use it will be a barrier rather than a gateway. Usability guru, Jakob Nielsen, suggests users spend on average less than 2 minutes on a website. The key to engaging visitors' must therefore be simplicity over complexity; the need is less not more - less clutter, less blurb and fewer barriers.

Why clutter-free design
"When we're creating sites, we act as though people are going to pore over each page, reading our finely crafted text, figuring out how we've organized things, and weighing their options before deciding which link to click…

…We're thinking 'great literature' (or at least 'product brochure'), while the user's reality is much closer to "billboard going by at 60 miles an hour."
--Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think

The Internet is clearly a different form of communication to more established media such as printed literature. However, it is only in recent years that its intrinsic differences have begun to make an impact on web design. I cannot count the number of times I've heard of clients asking their web designer to 'put our brochure online' - a brief that reflects a common lack of appreciation of the web as a powerful but very different medium.

Ensuring that the design and layout of our web pages suit the medium they are used in will help to ensure a positive user experience.

Let's look at a few practical ways of doing more with less to make things simpler for our visitors:

Make pages easy to scan
It's a well recognized fact now amongst web professionals that people rarely read pages online - they scan, or "speed read". Therefore, if the information they need is not readily available they will move on - and quickly. Sensible use of headings, subheadings and bullet-points help bring a logical hierarchy to the page and allow visitors eyes to scan through the page efficiently to find the information they need.

  1. Give me some [white] space:
    Subtle and thoughtful use of space in page design helps guide a visitor's eyes to important information. It also helps to bring logical definition to different areas of a page, which lightens the load on our brains and allows us to focus on the task in hand.
  2. Copy? Reduce it:
    Visitors often won't have the time or inclination to read pages and pages of text in the hope of finding what they're after. We need to prune our web copy to suit the medium - get rid of paragraphs and sentences that don't add value.
  3. Simplify site structure:
    Make sure that the sections of the site are divided up logically and that the navigation is clear and logical. Reduce the number of steps it takes to complete tasks, especially when they lead to revenue generation - such as the checkout process on an e-commerce site.
  4. Follow standards:
    When it comes to labeling navigation links, it's a good idea to follow standards that have evolved with web development. For example, with contact details rather than giving it a navigation label, 'call for more information/our offices', the standard would be 'contacts' or 'contact us'.

In closing...
Some might suggest that these principles constrain creativity. However, I believe that the 'less is more' philosophy heightens the need for a more creative approach to communicating ideas and messages - communicating an idea in 10 words is a lot harder than using 100 words.

About the author:
Jeremy Jarvis is a designer at Reflex Digital, offering web design services in Leeds, West Yorkshire and the UK. See for more information.