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blog simple

Simple: Simplifying Communication Until It Has No Meaning

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. – Albert Einstein

Words, color, and icons can be powerful tools for communicating with our users. The problem is, we often fail to use them properly. We are told over and over again to simplify, simplify, simplify; but at times we go too far. In this quote by Einstein, he makes the connection that so many fail to see: make it simple, but DON’T lose what you are trying to communicate. It is important that as we simplify, we stop and ask ourselves, “Will the user still understand what I am trying to communicate with less?”

Words: Are we speaking the same language?

In a conversation with a coworker the other day about a project I was currently working on, I used the acronym STD. Needless to say, they looked at me very confused, as their first thought was ‘Sexually Transmitted Disease,’ not ‘Short-Term Disability.’ It’s not only acronyms that are the problem. Every industry has it’s own ‘language’ and most people are not industry experts — it’s important we remember that. Just as with learning a new language, the more you speak industry lingo, the more likely you will fail to see why others who don’t speak your language and are struggling to understand. Think about the last time you were buying insurance, choosing where to save for retirement, or maybe just cooking a new recipe and being very thankful there’s this thing called google (sorry grandma I didn’t know what a dollop was.) If we try to simplify our words to create less reading but lose helpful information in the process, it can be very frustrating, and at times stressful for users.

The solution?

While trying to simplify, stay away from using acronyms and industry lingo. Inevitably, there are times when you just can’t get around some industry jargon. So, make sure to give users access to more details about the word or acronym being used (example: tooltips). Doing user testing with non-industry experts can help you find the friction points in your experience.

Color: It has meaning. Except when it doesn’t.

Imagine a stop sign. Now imagine that stop sign wasn’t red but purple. Now imagine that sign was red, but without the word, STOP printed across it. In both of these scenarios, I am sure we would all be hesitant and confused as to the meaning of the sign. If improperly used, color can confuse us, cause us to make errors, or miss information.

Issues occur when we aren’t conscious of color patterns already familiar to our audiences, such as with our purple stop sign. On the web or in apps users are familiar with things like green being used for success, red for errors, and light gray for inactive. When we start changing these patterns to mean something different, it can have an adverse impact on our users, causing them to misunderstand. Let’s also not forget the fact that approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women are affected by some form of color blindness1. So, in the case of our stop sign without the word STOP printed on it, our only source of communication (the color), isn’t accessible information for some of our users. (Thankfully, with stops signs, we still have the hexagon shape that denotes ‘stop.’)

For another example, let’s take the very popular app, Pokémon Go. You may have noticed, if you use the app, at times some of the pokémon in your pokémon list have a slight blue glow in the background. Why does this happen? Well, a slight blue glow in the background indicates the pokémon has been caught in the last 24 hours. How do I know? I had to google it because there wasn’t an obvious reason why there was a blue glow2 (if you didn’t google it and already knew…congrats). The point is, the blue was not intuitive as to it’s meaning. Thus, this use of color does nothing to enhance my experience without giving me the information that goes along with it. Color without an explanation can cause it to lose all meaning.

The Solution?

We can use color to impact users’ emotions, draw their attention to items, or emphasize a point; but not as the sole means to relay information. Simplifying by using only color, is to deny users access to information. Instead, combine color with other elements to communicate the information. Try testing your solutions in black and white to see if they still deliver the message clearly without the use of color.

Icons: The universal symbols of ambiguity.

Icons can seem like a very good idea to add a little excitement to a website or an app or to save space, but not all icons are alike.

Take a look at this image from a very popular app. Maybe you know that app already, maybe not. Either way, do you know what the icon on the right is representing?

I asked a few of my coworkers, and answers ranged from ‘bowling ball holes’ to ‘color adjustment’ to ‘a loading icon.’ None of which are correct for this application. If you know your apps well, you may have guessed this icon is from Snapchat. Even then, you may still be struggling trying to remember what is hiding underneath that little icon. The answer? Stories. Huh? Now, I am sure someone came up with an abstract explanation on how this icon symbolizes stories. The problem is, abstract objects are open to interpretation, and most of the time when trying to convey a message, you don’t want it to be open to users interpretation. Snapchat isn’t the only popular app with unclear icons. Take a look at Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, and view the icons within the app, as if it was your first time. Do the icons really communicate what they are supposed to? Probably not.

The Solution?

If you want to use icons, try using them with text, so it is clear what you are trying to communicate. I know this will take up more of your beloved screen space and may not look as ‘clean,’ but, if users don’t understand the simplification, the saved space and ‘clean look’ won’t matter. Some icons have become known as universal symbols, and they may be okay to use without text; however, user testing should still be the ultimate go/no-go for using an icon.


While simplifying our solutions is an important part of the process, it is important to remember not to lose sight of what we are trying to communicate in the process. Words, color, and icons can be powerful tools to enhance the user experiences, as long as we take the time to consider the bigger question, “Am I communicating to the user what I want them to know in a way they’ll understand?”




Images From: Snapchat App & Pokémon Go App