The words ‘simple’ and consistent’ is thrown around all the time in design and web development circles. Clients, stakeholders, designers, architects and developers alike all over love to blurt these words thinking they are some sort of silver bullet to designing. Some simply feel they need to say it because they’ve heard other people say it all the time. Some wave the simple & consistency flag as a way of saying ‘don’t-want-to-create-any-more-work-than-we-can-get-away-with’ sort of thing.
Contrary to their literal meaning, being simple and consistent isn’t that simple at all when it comes to designing web applications. The fact is that majority of people who want simple and consistency don’t even know what simple & consistent really is or what they want to achieve by being simple and consistent. (Maybe except for the people using it as ‘don’t-want-to-create-any-more-work-than-we-can-get-away-with’; They’re simply using it as an excuse to be lazy.)
Is consistency consistently good?
The concept of consistency is one of the key principles of interface design. Because consistency generally helps achieve better usability and enhance comprehension when used correctly. But consistency does not automatically guarantee better usability. Consistency is good only when it works to create positive experience for the user. There are situations where the context dictates the logic and we need to be flexible in order to deliver more logical experience for the user. When such need is ignored and simple & consistent is blindly applied merely for the sake of being simple and consistent, it most definitely will lead to what’s referred to as ‘foolish consistency’ where inability to think creatively and refusal to be flexible lead to bad design.
Consistency also doesn’t mean everything should look the same. However, to be totally fair, there are websites that are literally simple and consistent that work very well. For one, we all know this very popular simple and consistent website. The concept works well for them but may not work for projects that you and I may be working on.
Consistency has more to do with the way things work than how things look. Usability suffers a lot more when an application is logically inconsistent. Visual consistency functions as a supplement to the predictability that application’s logic creates. Granted, there are times when an application’s logic needs to be flexible as well to give way to better user experience. When usefulness and consistency collide, the former should trump. Always. It’s all about making the right compromises at the right time in the right places.
A good designer is one who knows what consistency really is. A great designer is able to distinguish between bad consistency and good consistency.
Clean does not mean tons of white space.
Simply being clean and simple does not equal good design. That’s like saying cemeteries are works of art because they are simple and has nice grid. Imagine a pile of random Lego pieces. At first glance, it may look like chaos but it really isn’t. Because everyone including toddlers immediately figure out how those pieces fit together. That’s because the logic behind how Lego pieces work is simple. Color or the shape of the pieces are immaterial in achieving such simplicity. And that should be the driving principle behind everything we design. It’s not always the color choices, size of text, graphics or layout that makes something simple to use. It’s the predictability that such logic help form in the user’s brain that ultimately makes something easy and simple to use. And being consistent in presenting the logic help achieve better usability.
Simplicity and consistency is crucial in designing web applications. But applying these concepts in correct manner is a very sophisticated art both visually and logically. First and foremost, an application’s logic needs to be sound. Is the navigation structured and wired logically? Do menus, buttons, or transactions work the same way across the site? Do your users know where they are going or what they expect to happen before performing any action? These are some of the things that need to be answered before anything visual can do their magic. Visual design by itself can only achieve so much. Know that a great visual design is not a substitute for flawed application logic. Also, knowing the rules is important as well as knowing when to bend the rules. All of that combined is what distinguishes great designs from the rest.