How to make your website more complex but usable

"Make it more simple!" "Everything is so complicated today, we can't go on like this." "Why don't they make things like they used to be, simple and easy" Statements like these can be read every day in newspaper reviews and blogs, heard on TV and whispered by everyone that has to decide which model of dishwasher to buy.

They make a lot of sense, don't they? I mean, who doesn't want more simplicity in his life?
Well, it turns out that most people, when choosing between two similar products, a simple one and a complex one, pick the complex one most of the time. Why is this so?

Why do people pick the most complex product?

The reason why people pick the most complex product over a simpler one is this: in the mind of the consumer, simple means "less features". And who really wants less features instead of more? When we buy something we automatically want more and companies know this very well.

So they pack more features in every release. Version 2.0 of the software can do more things. Newer cars are more intelligent than old ones. New phones can tell us at precisely what longitude and latitude we are sipping our coffee. The same happens with websites.

Websites started as simple home pages, with some text and images. Then they evolved into full fledged collections of documents and today they are so complex and full of functionalities that they are now called "web applications". Who knows what they will be like in two years?

But why do people say they want simplicity and at the same time buy complexity? Are they lying? No, they are not, and here's the reason why.

Why people want complexity

Most people want complex products because they have complex tasks to accomplish. But they also want to be able to use what they bought.
What they really want is a complex product that is usable.

It doesn't really matter how complex a product is, if it's usable our customer is happy. And this is true of physical products and of more intangible products like websites.

So, is it possible to make our complex website more usable?

Yes, it is. Designers have several tools at their disposal just for this task. If you think about it, design is not about aesthetics or creativity, although these components are present.
The essence of design is to manage complexity. A good designer doesn't eliminate complexity. He doesn't take out functionality. What he does is organize complexity so it becomes manageable.

Think of a book, for example.

A loose sheet manuscript is much harder to use then the final book which is printed in a legible typeface, divided into chapters, with clear headlines separated from the text and with page numbers and alphabetized index on the back page. The same information, when designed, becomes far more usable.
Can we add clarity and usability to a website like we can do for a book? Yes, we can and. Let's look briefly at two techniques that can make any website more usable: progressive disclosure and clustering elements together.

1. Progressive disclosure

This technique hides the less used functionalities from view, so the site looks simple and approachable. The extra functionalities are there but they can be accessed progressively by clicking on menus and links.
A good example of this technique is Google.
Let's look at Google's home page in 1999:

As you can see, it was really simple at the start. Only the logo, a search box and a couple of buttons. And this was all the functionality that Google provided: a search function.

As the site evolved, and added many more functionalities, the main design hasn't changed visually on the surface. (Notice from this example that the logo now changes from time to time but of course Google can afford to change it because it's so well known.)
But apart from the logo, nothing much has changed.
It's only when you click on the links that you can really see how complex the site has become.

The more you click and progress through the site, the more quantity of information is disclosed.

Let's now look at another technique to manage complexity: clustering elements together.

2. Cluster elements together

Some websites need to present lots of information on the home page and can look very intimidating.
One way to make the information more manageable is to cluster similar elements together. By grouping elements you reduce the number of things you look at, since groups of elements are perceived as one single element if they are close together.
This technique is used by many websites, including Amazon.com, as we can see in this example:

Amazon sells many products and this proposition needs to be reflected by the home page. People are supposed to see the great number of offers available on the site, like when you glance inside a department store and see the great quantity of merchandise available.
But too much information can overwhelm the visitor, so Amazon reduces the perceived number of elements on the web page by clustering them together.

The top search bar and the left navigation bar are perceived as one element: the navigation system. Within the navigation system, the search bar is made more prominent by the dark blue color because most people start their amazon.com visit by searching for a product.
The second element in the page is the main central area that changes often and the third element is the right sidebar.
So, as you can see, even if there are many individual elements on the page, they are highly organized in clusters and individual elements in each cluster are themselves organized by priority, therefore increasing usability.

Let's summarize what we have learned

Customers say they want simplicity but what they really want is manageable complexity.
This is great from a design standpoint because the essence of design is just that: manage complexity and make it more usable.
As websites become more complex over time, techniques need to be employed in order to keep customers coming.
Two techniques that are often used are progressive disclosure (used by Google) and clustering (used by Amazon.com).

Your website may not be Google or Amazon but like those sites it will certainly increase in complexity over time. Complexity is what your customers want. But if complexity is not properly managed it can become a nightmare for your visitors and for yourself.