Our users are demanding simplicity

Note: This article was originally published over 10 years ago on my archived website.

There has been a lot of discussion around Apple's decisions to exclude Flash support from the iPhone and iPad devices, and their reasons for doing so.

The ever-evolving nature of the web means that technologies will change, but in web design, the user experience should remain priority. It's not about which technology we choose, it’s how well we deliver our content to the broadest audience possible.

Browser compatibility and the Flash plugin are the least of our concerns.

Web design has always been about browsers, minimum screen resolutions and optimising for download speed.

That's all changed. Screens are both bigger and smaller, they are in landscape or portrait format, navigated by mouse or touch, and they are on a powerful MacBook Pro, or a not-so-powerful Asus Eee PC.

Worst case and best case are now harder to define. In fact, they are much less relevant. People are no longer restricted to the desktop computer at home or at work.

This makes the ubiquitous website more difficult to achieve. This new situation demands simplicity, but that is a major positive.

Processing power

Flash, for example, a technology which is responsible for much of the sex and violence on the web (albeit, after a brief moment of loading) can be so demanding on the CPU that there should be a hardware requirements disclaimer on the page (see anything on The FWA). It's the sense of freedom that Flash creates for a designer that can lead to excess. Not all Flash is like this, there are plenty of CPU conscious Flash sites out there too.

Javascript is also guilty of ignoring hardware limitations. With plenty of AJAX and Javascript animation, thanks to libraries like YUI and jQueryUI.

The file size can be as small as you want to make it. But the users CPU is an almost infinite variable. iPhones and Android devices can process Javascript, but they can’t animate as smoothly as a desktop PC. It works, but does it really work?

Look at console video games. If you've got a Nintendo Wii, you know that you can buy a Wii game and it will just work. You won't have to upgrade your video card, or install more RAM. It's seamless, that's why console gaming sees more mainstream success than PC gaming. In the same way, if you've got a device that can access the web, you just expect the web to work.

Browser compatibility issues are easily fixed because we can test in a defined set of browsers. But the limitations of our users processors are harder to define. Knowing that a computer or device supports Javascript, or has the Flash plugin installed, isn’t good enough. You have to aim low. You have to keep it simple.

Touch navigation

Mouse navigation allows precision, you've got a tiny arrow which can hit tiny targets. But with touch navigation you need to space the targets and make them big. We're not seeing many mainstream touch navigation devices outside of the iPhone or iPad but they are coming, because touch navigation works.

In addition to having bigger targets, we have to consider the hover functionality which is so useful in a mouse-navigated world. For example, a navigation menu which shows second level menus on hover isn’t very touch friendly. You can't hover with touch, but you can click-to-expand. Notice that Facebook have done away with any hover-to-expand style navigation. It's likely this was an update for touch navigation devices.

The mouse pointer is designed to simulate our finger actually touching what is on the screen. We've spent all this time designing interfaces to aid this idea, emphasising that we're touching this button, or we're clicking this link. Things which are less relevant when you are physically performing these actions.

So we'll be in a position where we have to accommodate for these two navigation types. They both essentially allow us to point and click items on a page, but they each have different strengths and weaknesses.

Screen sizes

There are really only two types of screen size. Big and small. The big ones can handle multiple columns, and the small ones are restricted to one. Both formats should offer the same content and functionality with similar, but separate, information architecture.

It might sound a little idealistic but it's not impossible for most websites. It’s more important than ever to accommodate for both.

Designing a website for a small screen is a good way to simplify the design for a large screen. It forces you to streamline, including only those elements which are useful in each situation.

Design for the extremes

The current Flash support debate and the persistence of Internet Explorer 6 are dwarfed when we consider all of the factors which make a website usable to as many people as possible.

In the documentary Objectified, Dan Formosa of NY product design agency Smart Design manages to sum it up brilliantly:

"if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself"

It's become harder for us to test our websites in a set of conditions that best represents our users. So we need to focus on the extremes. When we can make something beautiful that works on netbook as well as it works on a Mac Pro, we've done it right.