Beware of Over Simplification in UI Design

One of the trends I've noticed in the software world is a drive towards simple User Interfaces. I think in general this is a good thing, as often times UIs are cluttered with too many options, which can overwhelm and confuse the user. Apple and Google are famous for their clean simple UIs. But I wonder if you can take UI simplification too far?

I think the UI designer should strive to expose the most popular features that users will need. For example if most of your users will want to delete their stuff, give them a delete button. If most of your users would want to email you, give them an email function. Seems obvious, right?

Well, the trouble is oversimplification. I have seen a few cases where features that seem popular are missing or hidden because of UI simplification. This can cause as much confusion and frustration for the user as a cluttered interface, in my opinion.

A good example of oversimplification is with Google's new in browser music player (attached to their yet to be released Google Music service, which is still in beta.) I was lucky enough to receive a beta invite yesterday. When you go through the signup process, they give you the option of receiving a bunch of free songs. I decided to let Google load some of these free songs to my library. But later I wanted to delete them. But I could NOT find a way to delete them. Here's a sample pic of their interface:

As you can see (sorry the image is blurry), there is no delete button. I searched the entire interface from top to bottom and could not find a way to delete these songs! After searching fruitlessly for a few minutes I was beginning to wonder if Google purposefully omitted the delete function. But I decided to google it, and sure enough there is a way but it's not intuitive. You have to select all the songs you want to delete in the list, and then you click that little triangle that shows up next to the song length (this triangle appears AFTER you've selected the songs). Clicking the triangle brings up a list of extra functions, including delete. There is also an option to delete all selected songs.

It seems to me that deleting songs is a popular feature that people would want. Here are some use cases for deleting:

  • You want to get rid of free music that came with the service (which was my case.)
  • Some songs were somehow corrupted during upload, and you want to delete them and re-upload.
  • You don't like a band or song anymore.
  • You have run out of space in your account and you need to free up some space.
  • You discover duplicate songs in your collection (the same song on more than one album.)

So in an effort to simplify their User Interface, Google has inadvertently obfuscated an arguably necessary feature. I would argue that most users (especially those who are not computer savvy) would struggle finding out how to delete their songs when they need to. And my guess is they would just give up after trying for a few minutes, which means they would be stuck with songs they want (or need) to get rid of.

One thing that can really help you in UI design is usability testing. This can range from an informal, "Can I look over your shoulder as you try my new software?" session to a full scale usability testing project with cameras, test scripts, pre and post interviews, etc. I don't want to get into the details of usability testing here (google it if you're curious, there are tons of resources out there on the subject.) Suffice it to say that usability testing can help you find the right balance between simplification and clutter.

Comments
I've been getting annoyed with Google doing this for ages now.

Android and Chrome are both perfect examples where they start of with something reasonable and then keep cutting things down, changing things, removing icons, and so on - all without providing a way for people that actively dislike their choices to customise things back to how they were.

Computers are getting more powerful and more flexible and yet Google and others insist on not giving us that power, or hiding it behind multiple levels of menus and screens without bothering to consider whether we're not just capable of dealing with it, but we actually *want* the improved experience of having it as part of the main UI.
Simplicity is relative.

If you're a trained pilot, then aircraft cockpit controls will (one would hope) look straightforward.

If you're an IT expert then you're unlikely to be put off by a complicated UI, in fact you'll want easy access to all the features.

Google and Apple took a different view to other IT companies a decade and more ago and decided that making things easier for people with no IT skills was the most important thing - and that meant removing as much of the (to them) confusing stuff as possible so that the basic functions became more obvious and intuitive. Result: computers and the web are now in the mainstream consumer domain, not just the preserve of IT and business.

But there's always a discussion to be had about what needs to be removed/hidden according to the typical user's needs. I think you make a good argument, Jake, for Google having gone too far in this particular case.