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Simple and Usable: An Interview with Giles Colborne

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Karen McGrane interviews Giles Colborne about his book, Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design, where he discusses the four core solutions for simplifying, advice for designers, and finding “simplicty on the other side of complexity.”
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Karen McGrane: How do you expect your book, Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design, will be used? What type of reader were you imagining when you wrote it?

Giles Colborne: I've been in a lot of meetings where people went in saying “we have to make this simpler” and have somehow come out with something more complicated and convoluted.

It doesn't need to be that way. If people pushed just a little more, they'd find themselves on what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “simplicty on the other side of complexity”—the “simple yet powerful” kind of simplicity.

When I wrote the book, I wanted to give people the tools to help them get a little bit further and find their way, I hope, from “okay” to “great.”

I was thinking of digital product managers and user experience designers when I wrote the book. What's surprised me is how people like architects, teachers and writers have written to me to say that they've used the principles I describe in “Simple and usable.” I didn't expect that.

Karen: You said you didn't want to write a "process" book. How is your book different?

Giles: There are a lot of great “process'” books out there that go from “idea” to “delivery.” Process helps most if you're managing a project or organizing a team.

What I wanted to do was to zero in on the point where people are designing. That tends to be a “black box” where magic is supposed to happen. But it's where you need inspiration.

So I tried to write a book of strategies and tips that people could use to break out of one particular way of thinking.

I also wanted to give people something  to help them convince their colleagues. I know from experience that the most useful tool for this is a bank of stories that dramatize your point of view. So I gathered stories that will help them explain what needs to be done.

I think that makes it very different from a process book—it's something you can always pick up and use.

Karen: How did you identify the four core "solutions" you describe in your book? Do you think these solutions are universal?

Giles: A few years ago I started giving job candidates the task of simplifying something as part of their second interview. What I noticed was that the same patterns kept coming up.

Simplifying meant one of four things: removing what's unnecessary, organizing what's haphazard, hiding what's not needed and displacing the complexity to somewhere it made more sense.

I've tried the exercise with hundreds of people—experienced designers, novices and every shade in between—and those same four strategies describe all the solutions I've seen.

So they certainly seem to be universal in the sense that I've not seen a design problem that couldn't be solved by using the four strategies, and I've not seen any other approaches that could be applied to the problem of simplifying something.

That's helpful because the strategies become a checklist. If you run out of ideas, they open up new paths.

Karen: The rhythm of reading your book is defined by the images that separate the pages of text. How did you decide to structure your book that way? How does it reflect your overall approach to simplicity?

Giles: When I was planning the book I looked back through my library and tried to identify books that felt very simple or complex and what it was I liked or disliked about them.

A lot of books were a mess of call-outs, icons, sub-headings and side-bars. The experience of reading them was very disjointed, like listening to someone who keeps interrupting themselves. I wanted to remove those kinds of distraction.

I remembered one of my favorite business books, Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith, which is a superb book about how to sell services. It's written as a series of short chapters, each of which explains one idea perfectly in about one page. I remember how when I read it, I felt like I could read “just one more” chapter, and before I knew it I'd read half the book.

Another book that was important was Bob Gill's Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design Including the Ones in this Book. Each idea in the book is brought to life with an illustration. I think a book about design needs strong illustration. And I love the way that once you've read Gill's book you only need to see the illustrations to remember his points. So I wanted to do something similar.

When I put those points together, I found they worked very well.

What pleased me about the rhythm is that there is a natural pause between each idea. I think it's important to leave spaces in design because that's where your users or your readers have time to react—it's where the richest part of experience happens.

I think that's a vital ingredient in simplicity. But leaving space for the user takes a lot of trust. It can be quite scary to do that.

Karen: Do you have advice for designers trying to orchestrate "spaces" in their designs? Do the principles of simplicity that you outline here help designers work through the scary parts of leaving pauses for the user to figure things out?

Giles: There are two ways to think about this.

If you're trying to leave space for the user entirely, in which case, you should take the minimalist approach—create something that's pleasing, but with the minimum of fuss, clutter, text, functionality—make your software like a Zen garden.

Most likely, though, you want to steer the user in a particular direction but leave things open. In that case, the rule is find the smallest possible nudge that will inspire the user to move in the direction you want. If you're heavy handed the users will feel as though they're being forced and they'll turn against you. The minimum nudge can be an image, a word or two of copy or a highlight on the screen.

In my book, I often used the photos for this. I tried to find photos that were interesting and would hold the readers' attention for a moment while they paused. It doesn't take long for another thought to pop into the reader’s head, and I figured the photographs would be good inspiration.

Karen: Tell me about the process of creating this book. What was more difficult: writing the text, or selecting the images?

Giles: I'm used to thinking in pictures, and I guess that's how I'd normally prepare a presentation: pictures first, words later. I'm not sure why but I did it the other way round with “Simple and Usable.”

It took me a long time to “find my voice.” I'd written for magazines and blogs and other people's books, but somehow writing this book was different. Every word was like drawing one of my own teeth. I suppose it was because I wanted to make it feel really simple that I agonized over everything.

It was giving a talk at a conference on a completely unrelated topic that broke the deadlock. I was listening to myself and I thought: oh, yes, that's how I should do it. After that I made sure to read aloud everything that I wrote. It made a huge difference.

Choosing the images was also hard. Partly because finding an image that sums up any idea in an interesting or unusual way isn't easy and partly because I needed to be sure to have copyright permissions for the images. That's a horrible process because when you put a simple request like “can I use your photo” into legal speak it sounds like “give me your house, car and soul.”

I was lucky that people were great. One of my favorite photos in the book was the “whack a mole” picture. I thought it summed up my point perfectly (that when you eliminate complexity on one place it crops up elsewhere). But I got permission to use it at the very last minute. The book nearly went to press with a very different photo which wouldn't have been half as good.

So which was harder? I guess my answer is: whatever I happened to be doing at the time was always the hardest.

Thankfully, I think it came out very well. I remember holding it in my hands for the first time thinking: wow, a proper book and it looks just like the one I've been trying to write. I'm also really pleased at the reviews—it's just great when you come across someone's blog and discover they've found some inspiration in “Simple and Usable” and they share the same vision. It makes all that hard work worthwhile.

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