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Design in the age of impatience: why simplicity matters

At a recent Marketing Association event I asked the audience if they used Tinder. Not one of the 350 attendees put their hands up. A reflection of my research methodology, no doubt. Tinder is one of those products everyone knows about yet no one admits to using. However, its influence is far-reaching, and not because of what it does, but how it does it. You see, Tinder’s brilliance lies in its user interface.

For those of you who genuinely don’t know how Tinder works, here’s the bluffer’s guide. It’s a dating app that presents you with photos of prospective matches and allows you to make decisions in simple, swipeable form (swipe left to reject a photo, swipe right to accept). If they have swiped right for you, the app connects you. It’s the lazy dater’s dream. You don’t have to lift a finger to find people compatible with you, because your thumb does all the work. It allows you to make countless decisions in a minute and it’s entirely visual. For better or worse, words have little value in the world of Tinder. 

In this age of impatience and exponential shift to mobile devices, this ‘glanceable UI’ is fast taking hold. In the past year, Facebook and Twitter have both made significant changes to their native advertising options to better reflect the way we consume information via mobile. The results are a vast improvement on previous options for advertisers on those platforms, as visuals overtake words in dominance. 

From a consumer’s perspective, it just makes information easier to digest. As Slate’s Will Oremus says: “Let’s face it: words are old hat. They’re sub-optimal from a UX perspective, because they’re aesthetically monotonous, and their meaning is not always easily grasped at first glance. They demand of the user a form of engagement—‘reading’—that can be mentally daunting”. It’s hard to read the tone in Oremus’ commentary for a hint of sarcasm, but that just serves to underline his point: words can be ambiguous where pictures often are not. 

I’m not geeky enough to know whether Tinder deserves the full credit for future design that enables swifter processing, or if in UX terms this honour falls to the likes of Flipboard or lesser-known predecessors. What I am sure of is that this move to visual dominance and simplicity of engagement is here to stay. Our collective attention deficit demands it. 

What is ironic, though, is that all of this is really just the internet catching up.

Back in the day, there were countless examples of exceptional glance-able user interfaces. The Economist did them brilliantly for more than a decade. Tui was pretty good at it too. We called them billboards. Road signs do it even better: simple graphics (emojis?) to warn of imminent dangers work so much better than words when you’re driving at speed. Great design has always solved problems with economy and made the consumption of information easier, quicker and with less ambiguity. Visuals dominate, with words kept to a minimum.

From apps to native ads, design is championing reductionist principles, and is all the better for it. As Bill Bernbach advised: “Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify.” Tinder and its ilk do this brilliantly, and prove that sometimes the key to great art direction is what you leave out, rather than what you put on the page or screen. Now that the technological constraints of processing speed and bandwidth are lifting, the opportunity exists to deliver digital experiences that are more single-minded, engaging and useable. In this context, the marketer’s role is to return to first principles: providing as simple a framework as possible for consumer choice, and allowing the technology to support, rather than dictate, actions.    

  • Simon Lendrum is managing director of JWT. This post originally appeared in the July/August issue of NZ Marketing magazine.
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