Simple Design

When I was hired nearly three years ago as an “Instructional Designer and Multimedia Developer,” it was with the promise that our online learning venture would be “cutting edge” and “outside the box” — that it would contribute to the on-going democratization of higher education by making college degrees available to underserved and isolated student populations and by appealing to the broad spectrum of individual learning styles via new media previously unavailable to distance educators. Ah, the beautifully naive, halcyon days of 2000. Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

So I did like most educational designers: I broke open Flash and began building unnecessarily shiny, happy learning objects, some more interesting and effective than others. Nearly fifty online courses later, I don’t remember the last time I built anything with a bell or a whistle or a motion tween. You know why? Nobody cares.

Last month, Jakob Nielsen posted a better than average Alertbox. In “Low-End Media for User Empowerment,” he offers common sense wisdom that should come as little surprise to most designers, but it bears repeating:

Fancy media on websites typically fails user testing. Simple text and clear photos not only communicate better with users, they also enhance users’ feeling of control and thus support the Web’s mission as an instant gratification environment.

After cataloging the standard gripes — bandwidth remains an issue (witness my dial-up), Webcasts almost always suck, and complex media do a number on navigation — Nielsen focuses on the strengths of simple design, particularly the importance of readable, relevant, and quality content. I especially like this point:

On average, low-end media has a higher percentage of information-rich content, while high-end media has a higher percentage of show-off content. Low-end media is certainly not fluff-free; witness the pictures of “smiling ladies” where product photos should be. High-end media, however, positively revels in embellishments and irrelevancy. Getting to the point seems to be beside the point when you invest a fortune in fat media. After all, you’ve got to have something elaborate to show for your money.

He also adds:

Think of Googlebot as your most important user — and one that is blind to high-end media.

For a site that has only been around for a little over a year and that gets relatively little traffic, Long Pauses shows up with surprising frequency on the first page of Google searches. That’s partly because my reading and film responses fill a small niche — like, apparently not many Websites devote an entire page to Ordet or July’s People. But I’d like to think that it’s also because content is king, and the sharing of content is the only reason that the Internet continues to excite me.