Minimalism in UX Design: is less really more?

By Marion Veth (Braingineers)

Over the past couple of years, minimalism has proven to be one of the biggest trends in UX design. Google for instance, always makes sure that the search bar is the most central element on their homepage, leaving all non-essential elements out. It seems that ‘less is more’ is often associated with minimal web design. But can this actually be justified?

In essence, minimal web design is all about displaying content and features as simplistically as possible, without compromising functionality. Elements that do not contribute directly to the end user’s primary goals, will therefore be left out. When executed properly, this can result in a better overall user experience, as well as a shorter loading time and ultimately, higher conversion rates. 

Yet we continue to see examples of minimalist web designs that completely miss the mark. In such cases, web designers leave out so much detail that users find it difficult to navigate, or cannot find certain information. Minimizing design then impedes functionality. But how do you find the right balance? In this article, you will read about the psychology behind minimal web design, common pitfalls, and how to overcome them. 

Limit the number of options

One of the pillars of minimalism in web design is limiting the number of options a user gets. This idea is derived from the psychological principle of Hick’s Law, which states that the time required to make a decision is based on the number of options available, followed by their complexity. If either one increases, the time required to make the decision increases logarithmically. 

When the amount of options is too high, choice overload may occur. This means that our working memory has to process too much information at once. Decision-making then requires too much cognitive effort, which causes people to get frustrated more quickly. This in turn, can lead to an increased risk of customer drop-out. In order to prevent this, the number of options should be kept to a minimum, and every bit of information should contribute to the user’s end goal. Important to note is that elements that support the primary goal should be maintained at all times. In other words, always take functionality into account, especially when reducing the number of options. 

Visual calmness

Another fundamental pillar of minimalism is visual calmness. This principle is underpinned by the idea that excessive visual input, similar to choice overload, forces our working memory to process too much information simultaneously. If that happens, selective disregard may occur. This means that on a subconscious level, we stop paying attention to visual elements that seem familiar, or to information that we deem irrelevant. As a result, we might actually overlook vital pieces of information, which could lead to frustration and ultimately, increases in drop-out behavior. 

Therefore, we suggest you pick a clean, visually calm web design. Adding more visual elements will not necessarily make your website more user friendly. Instead, white spaces and simple color palettes are commonly used to create a sense of calmness. Again, finding the right balance is key. Do not eliminate visual elements that support the user’s primary goal.  

Now that we have presented you with a number of psychological effects and pitfalls regarding web design, time to answer our main question: how do you find the right balance between minimalism and functionality. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, there is no gold standard to minimal design. There is a myriad of factors at play, such as context, web-flow, target demographic, and the user’s motivation. The good news is that we are able to measure and analyze this. 

Neuro usability research

With traditional usability (UX) research, we are readily able to capture the user’s experiences and expectations to some extent. However, choice overload and selective disregard are more difficult to capture, as they stem from emotions and intuition. Neuro usability research offers a possible solution to this problem, as it provides insight into the user’s subconscious behavior and emotions. 

To illustrate how this works in relation to minimalism, we have included an excerpt of our own research. Recently, a benchmark was performed on the usability of supermarket apps. Our participants were instructed to order groceries, and whilst completing the task, their emotions and behavior were registered. We focused specifically on a new Albert Heijn-app named AH Compact, which is only operational in particular regions in the Netherlands. Several minimalist concepts have been applied in the designing of this app. When comparing the AH Compact app to another supermarket’s, Plus for instance, this yields interesting insights.

As for minimal design, Plus seemingly did a great job of keeping it simple with their app. The menu only consists of icons, in contrast to the Albert Heijn app also using text. However, neuro research showed that Plus’ menu was actually experienced far worse: attention and frustration levels both peaked when participants interacted with the menu. They reported that it was unclear what the icons signified and that they experienced difficulty navigating to the right pages. From this example, we can clearly see how minimal design impedes the user’s goal (navigation in this case). 

Plus supermarket app

With the AH compact app, participants actually had a positive emotional experience. The visual display proved to be calm, and it was clear how to navigate through it, using the icons in the menu.

Albert Heijn compact app

[1] EEG, eye-tracking, touch/mouse-tracking, and video recordings register the participants’ behavior whilst they complete a test independently. After finishing the test, an interview is conducted.

Neuro usability thus gives us insight into the efficacy of minimal web design. Interestingly, the example above shows that ‘less’ does not necessarily have to be ‘more’. We regularly encounter these types of unexpected insights in our research, whether it be on websites, apps, or in (TV) commercials. This does not come as a surprise, once you realize that neuroscience has only recently emerged within the field of e-commerce. 

Minimalism: the right balance

We believe that minimalism is a powerful tool to improve user experience. Psychological insights have proven that keeping designs visually calm and limiting the amount of choice, supports users in reaching their goals. Whether a web design keeps the right balance between minimalism and functionality, largely depends on the context. We suggest you do not get carried away by best practices. Rather, try to test your flows properly, and find the right balance for your unique web flow. 

Sources

  1. Rosati, Luca. (2013). How to design interfaces for choice: Hick-Hyman law and classification for information architecture.

  1. Bater, Lovina & Jordan, Sara. (2019). Selective Attention.

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