Simplicity is an Experience

January 7, 2016 by UX-RADIO


Simplifying user experiences when designing digital tools and applications might not be as easy as you think. Giles Colborne has been designing interactive user experiences since the early 1990s and he shares some meaningful insights about making design ‘simple’.


Welcome to UX Radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience, and design.

Today’s guest, Giles Colborne, is extremely familiar with usability and user-centered design. His career spans more than two decades, and currently he’s co-founder of CX Partners, with Richard Caddick. Colborne also found time to author Simple and Usable Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. In this podcast, host Lara Fedoroff talks to Giles Colborne about simplifying user experiences when designing digital tools and applications.

Lara Fedoroff:            I just appreciate so much the time to talk to me today. Tell me about your schooling and your early career days.

Giles Colborne:          Sure. Well, I started in human computer interaction before it was really a thing and I didn’t even know what I was getting into. In my family there were two types of people, really. There are the scientists and the designers. My brother is a designer. He’s a car designer. I actually studied science. I studied physics at university. And while I was there I did a bit of student journalism, newsletters and stuff. And unusually for a British degree, I took psychology with my physics. Which British degrees don’t let you mix subjects about as much as they do in the United States.

So that’s quite an odd mix. And I came out of university thinking I want to do something in communications. But I really didn’t like anybody I had met who worked in advertising. They’d come around on the kind of graduate recruitment. I just thought, yuck, really? And so I joined British Aerospace. Because they were nearby, they had a good graduate recruitment program. And something might come up. And actually what happened was the human computer interaction group got passed my CV, and they said, well, he’s done a bit of computing, and he can write newsletters, so he can come along and work for us and write the newsletter for the HCI group.

And I came across this thing. And it had everything I was interested in. Had psychology, had design. Because I’d grown up around all that stuff. And it had communications. And it was great. The only thing that wasn’t great was that this is really pre-web. So what that meant was that you only really got pulled into projects on sufferance. You got pulled into projects because people had to have you there. So they always pulled you in too late. And everyone in the industry was like why does nobody ever listen to us?

And I think the big change that really happened was computers became a commodity. They became a consumer item. Instead of being something that was done to people, given to people by organizations or faceless groups, computers became something people chose. So you had to start making them friendly and fun and usable. Because otherwise people wouldn’t choose them. So that’s been the big shift in my career.

We’ve gone from – why does nobody ever listen to us – to everyone listens to us. Everyone wants a little bit of what we do. And I think we’re incredibly lucky. Most of us have immense influence in organizations, even though we think we don’t. I mean nobody ever has enough, right? But that shift has been just amazing over that period, the period of the growth of the internet. To the point where everybody has a computer in their pocket.

Lara Fedoroff:            So you’re writing the newsletter. Things are starting to change. Where does your career take you next?

Giles Colborne:          The next kind of significant step in my career I guess was while I was working at British Aerospace I was putting together educational materials, and that led me to the world of CD-ROM. And then I found myself working at Institute of Physics Publishing. They were assembling a team. Because they had seen the future of publishing. They knew exactly what it was. It was going to be libraries full of banks of CD-ROMs in enormous jukeboxes. And that’s how people were going to get their books and stuff.

So I was brought in to help people build that. And pretty much I think the first day I got there I noticed this rather cool looking black computer in the corner that nobody seemed to be using. But it looked great. And that was a NEXT workstation. And on it, it had this new piece of software, which was only just out. And that was a web browser for something called the World Wide Web which had been invented by these physicists trying to get stuff published.

And immediately it was like we don’t need the CDs. We don’t need any of that stuff. This is amazing. I just happened to show up at the right place at the right time. And I found myself working on some of the first web publications, the first websites, the first commercial websites. Going to conferences, meeting people like Tim Bernice Lee and having a little discussion group with him and half a dozen other people. So it was again just very, very fortunate.

And, as I said, that point, the point at which the web kind of exploded on the world and everyone wanted to use computers to publish and read information was a big turning point.

Lara Fedoroff:            Right. There’s been a lot of talk about information architecture, user experience, interaction design. There’s all sort of these facets that we’re touching on. So what is your specialty? Where is your passion within all of those different facets?

Giles Colborne:          Wow. Well, I wouldn’t like to stick a label on myself as one of those things. I run a UX business. So I have to kind of have some breadth across that and have great people who work with me who are great specialists in research techniques, for instance, or in interactions. And so I kind of have to sit and float above that and understand enough of everything to kind of help coordinate that and see where that goes forward. But the thing I’m really interested in, the thing I find I keep coming back to, is the idea of simplicity.

And what I mean by that really is the idea you can solve complex problems by finding a few simple levers to pull. And if you focus on a few simple things, and pulling those levers, a lot of other stuff will start to fall into place. I think very often when anybody solves design problems, they get to that point where they really understand the problem, and they see every little wrinkle, and they try to iron out every little wrinkle, and end up with something way too complicated for people to approach and use. Unless they have a similar level of expertise.

What I like is finding the three or four things you can do and saying, if we just do those things, everything else will fall into place. And that’s true of how I manage my business, and also the design solutions that I’m fascinated by.

Lara Fedoroff:            So what’s one example of that instance that you’ve just mentioned?

Giles Colborne:          I think in every design project you hit that a-ha moment. You hit that – well, we could do this like this. And one of the first big projects that happened for me was a really complicated project. It was a car configurator. And it was the first time I’d approached a problem like that. It was a few years ago. You could, by clicking the check boxes and choosing the right options, come up with up to half a million different variations of this particular car. And all of the solutions that had been designed up to that point had taken that problem and gone, right, we’re going to break this down into steps for people and make them go through these steps.

Superficially that sounded like a simple solution, but it was very clear when we watched people go through that process, that they felt they were being put into a tube and shot down a pipe. And the level of anxiety – what’s at the other end of this pipe, where am I going, why can’t I do this – was immense. So that step-by-step process really wasn’t working for them. It was freaking them out. You could see that in the web analyst. We’re just dropping out of the process.

So the thing, the simple idea we had there, is, well, why don’t we just let people do anything in any order? Of course, the technical complexity behind that was huge. But just by opening the process up, just by letting people move around and do the things they wanted to do, and finish doing them when they felt they were ready – not, “You must finish all these things to get to step two, then you must finish all these things to get to step three,” but, “When you’re ready, try this, and when you’ve done as much configuring as you want, then you’re done.”

That just – bam. People’s satisfaction went way off the scale. People’s enthusiasm went way off the scale. They actually ended up doing more. We’d taken away the constraint. They could have done nothing. But they ended up doing twice as much in half as much time. It was a really great demonstration of how often a very simple idea, no matter how complex it is to implement, has a profound effect on people’s behavior and their satisfaction. How much good you do for them.

Lara Fedoroff:            It’s interesting. The problem of the linear path versus sort of one that’s more customized and personal for the user. I recently was working on a project similar to that where the interface was linear. And we discovered with the users that that’s not the experience they want to have. They might go to step three, then one, then six, and four, and move around. And that’s more meaningful than going through a linear process.

Giles Colborne:          That’s right. Very often, the linear process breaks in the real world. So that is a problem and a solution I’ve come up against time and time again since. So a few years later I was working on a mortgage application form. Really complicated form. People needed to go and get lots of different pieces of documentation. Of course somebody has gone, well, we’ll just break this down into a step-by-step process.

And what would happen is people would start to fill it in, and then they’d go, oh, well, I don’t have this piece of documentation. And then they’d have to go away and get it. And either it wouldn’t be with them, because they’d be doing this from work, and the document was at home, or they couldn’t find it, or they got distracted by something else. So, again, the process was too constraining, and people dropped out.

Same thing as you found. By letting people go in whatever order they wanted, they could get the easy stuff done, get invested in it as well, and then come back and do the harder stuff later, or do the other stuff when it was more convenient for them. And, again, same thing. Boosted up the number of people completing the process. I remember with that project, literally, they put it live, and then they had to hire more back office staff to process the orders. Within a few weeks, they were overwhelmed.

Lara Fedoroff:            That’s a good problem to have.

Giles Colborne:          Yeah, it’s a nice problem to leave someone with.

Lara Fedoroff:            Makes me think of taxes. And how you can go through the digital experience in whatever order you want, or you can use the wizard. So I think something like a wizard, something that offers the user help if they’re in a complex environment, is really useful. But you have the choice. Whether you want to be guided through, or whether you create your own experience.

Giles Colborne:          I’m always a little wary of giving people those kinds of choices because it creates a seed of doubt in people’s minds. Should I have gone this way? Should I? And the trouble with that doubt is it niggles away at people’s confidence. The important thing to recognize is even if someone gets past a step in the process, like do you want the wizard or do you want the open process, there will be these little grains of doubt in their mind. And you won’t see them, but they’re building up, and building up, and building up. Eventually they’ll reach a critical point and people will just drop out.

And so I think we have to be very economic. And respectful of the kind of emotional capital we’re using up as people go through an interface. And that we recognize just because the analytics said they got past that point doesn’t mean that point was not a problem.

Lara Fedoroff:            Right. Trust is so important. Even when you’re being led down a path, I think you can question the intention of who is leading you. And so like you said, little by little you might say, well, they’re taking me down this path, but why? Why are they taking me this way?

Giles Colborne:          Yeah. That is absolutely true. Trust is a huge issue. So I do a lot of work on e-commerce sites. Again, superficially it looks as though what you’re doing is you’re facilitating a transaction. I think what you’re really doing is engendering trust. And people will buy when they have enough trust. And so once again if you undermine that trust, they’ll drop out of the process. Again, that’s one of those shifts that suddenly makes you see the entire process rather differently. People are far more critical in their judgments than they’re often given credit for.

It’s so easy to kind of look at an interface and see, ah, yes, people will absorb this and then they’ll know it. Or then they’ll believe it. Find that a lot with comment systems and review systems. Don’t just look at a review and go, ah, that, therefore, is what that thing is. They review the reviewer. As they read through a review, they’ll go, would I agree with this person, would this be my judgment, would – does this person’s particular set of preferences match up with mine? And they may read a bad review and go, yeah, but that guy really didn’t know what he was talking about.

Or that guy was upset by something that really was trivial he shouldn’t have been upset by. And they’ll go ahead and buy anyway. So, again. Trust is a very subtle thing. And it’s not just about giving people what they want. It’s about treating people like us.

Lara Fedoroff:            Tell me a little bit about your book and what inspired you to write it.

Giles Colborne:          So my book is called Simple and Usable Web Mobile Design. And it’s a book about simplicity. It’s a book about what is it, and how do you get there? And, as I said, as a theme, it’s something I find, as I dig back, discover a folder of some stuff you wrote 10-15 years ago, you discover, my God, that guy, that old Giles was still writing about that stuff and thinking about that stuff. So it’s one of those things that have been bubbling along for a while. And I think there were a couple of things that really troubled me about simplicity.

The first is that you hear a lot of sophistry around simplicity. People say it’s impossible to know what simplicity is. Look at your iPhone. You say it’s simple, but look how complex it really is. Look how many moving parts. Look how much technology is in there. Therefore it’s not simple. And I think that really is sophistry. Simplicity is an experience. The real answer is not let’s open something up and see how complicated it is. The real answer is does this person who is using this thing feel they had a simple experience?

It’s not something objective. It’s not something you measure. You really need to ask people, does that feel simple? And I think that was an important point. Because there’s a lot of people kind of dissing simplicity, as if, oh, it’s dumbing down, or people don’t want it or need it. And that’s simply not true. And the use of those kind of arguments to pull the wool over people’s eyes kind of frustrated me. So that was one thing.

And then the other thing was I found myself, as we grew the business, and interviewed people, and brought them in, we needed little design tasks to give people in the interview. And so one of the tasks we gave them was to simplify something. It was actually a TV remote control, a DVD remote control. So it was something we knew everyone would have in their home, something that appeared way more complex than it ought to. And so we would ask people to go away, simplify it, bring us back a presentation.

And then essentially we would give them a hard time no matter what they said. Because we were interested, really, in their ability to listen to critique of their design, and also to stand up for their decisions. But as we’re doing this, we realize that really there are only a limited number of solutions people could come up with. And I thought that was fascinating. Suddenly we had a way – we asked people to do one thing. And actually all of their solutions fell into these four categories.

They would remove stuff. They would organize stuff. They would hide stuff away. Or they would displace stuff, move stuff off of the DVD remote control but put it somewhere else in the living room. And those are all interesting, valid approaches. They all had different tradeoffs associated with them. And they kept coming up again and again. And so I thought, well, here is a really cool pattern. Here is something we can start to use when we’re trying to apply that question, “Simplify this,” to anything. We can start to use those patterns and play with them. That was really the genesis of the book.

There’s a real ethos of sharing. That doesn’t exist in other industries. A lot of other industries pretend they have some kind of secret source. And they’ve done something special and wonderful. And their technique is unique and you have to go to them. In our industry, it’s almost the exact opposite. It’s like if you’re doing something no one else is doing, it’s a little bit suspect. And if you have something cool, you get kudos for sharing it. And there’s always this risk if you don’t share it, somebody else will come up with the same thing anyway, and they’ll get the kudos.

So there’s this real kind of enthusiasm to share. Enthusiasm to share the knowledge, the ideas, the techniques, and to learn from each other. We’re really lucky to have that. And I and now the people who work in my company, we make a point of kind of contributing to that. Whether that’s through writing books, or working on conferences, going to speak, doing mentoring activities, just sharing what we discover in blogs – I think it’s really important to try and be part of that, and to do those things, to go out and talk to students in college, just explain what it’s like out there in the world.

Or to say, well, like, here’s my best shot at this, but if anybody’s got something better, please add to it, please help. We’re incredibly lucky to work in that kind of community.

Lara Fedoroff:            It sounds like you encourage your team to do the same.


Giles Colborne:          Yeah. They get a lot out of it. They do it in different ways. Some of them have really discovered they enjoy the writing process. I found writing my book the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was so nerve-wracking, committing stuff essentially to paper where you can’t take it back afterwards. You can’t write a little addendum onto a blog post. You can’t comment on your own stuff and go, “Oh, I’ve also found this.” It’s on paper. That’s it. And if you make a dumb mistake, it’s your dumb mistake forever.

So I found that whole process of writing really difficult. But some of our members and staff are already on their second book, way ahead of me. And others get it through organizing events. Others get it through speaking. Others get it through blogging. I’m not too concerned about which it is, but I think putting your ideas out there, sharing them, connecting with people, outside of the little office we work in, is really important.

Lara Fedoroff:            It is. And it’s exciting to see people sharing. And I think you do get the rewards for sharing those ideas at conferences like the IA Summit. So it’s great to see that happening in this industry. And I think it really is inviting for people who want to get into the field.

Giles Colborne:          I hope so. I think keeping things inviting and friendly is another aspect of a healthy community. We’ve done work on community websites before. And one of the slightly terrifying things that sometimes happens in those environments is it ends up being a little echo chamber with the inner circle just talking to each other, and closing off, closing in. That’s why a conference like IA Summit is really valuable because there’s a real commitment there to bringing new voices in. To bringing people who have never spoken at this kind of conference in.

Oh, and, also, giving them the training and support so you can’t tell which ones those are. You come along to this conference in particular because of the work people like Adam Polanski do in the speaker studio. Everyone gets up on stage and is great. And that’s just tremendous to be part of that, to watch that, see those people step into the limelight.

Lara Fedoroff:            So where do you see yourself going in the next few years? Where do you want to stretch yourself? What do you want to do next?

Giles Colborne:          The two things that I enjoy most are – one is I suppose kind of a little hidden from view. And that is actually the business of designing a business. That’s fascinating. In a consultancy business, it really shouldn’t be about command and control. It should be about facilitating. What you need is for all of the people who work in that business to be great. And to go out and be great. You don’t want them to be in a hierarchy, and third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth rank, and feel as though they’re under the thumb.

So designing a business where you really encourage people to develop and grow, and then keeping that happening as the business gets bigger, and as you have all these – the web of relationships gets more complex, the scale of projects you’re doing gets more complex, that is an endlessly fascinating process and problem to me. And it’s lovely. It’s this place where – it’d be easy to say I can experiment on. But actually you run something like that a lot through culture and through developing a sense of the culture and values of the group.

And so we can sit down and have a discussion, as we did the other week, about process, and somebody around the table will look at that process and say, “That’s not quite us, that doesn’t quite fit with our values.” And that’s really what you’re looking for. You’re looking for, on the one hand, you’re trying to design a business. But it’s actually you do this through the process of instilling culture. And then the people within the business end up designing it and making it better. And of course you need that if you’re ever going to grow. And get it bigger than the number of buttons you can press with all of your fingers. So that’s one of the things.

And then the other thing is I do love coming up into events like IA Summit, into the community, and really connecting with people. And just getting that sense of what’s going on. We’re at a time of incredible disruption in our industry. The way we go about doing stuff is totally different from the way we went about doing the same things, UX design, interface design, five, six years ago. And the difference is the mobile phone, is the smart phone.

What’s happened is that first of all the number of devices we’re designing for has very obviously proliferated but the number of people consuming the experiences really haven’t. So now our clients come to us and say, “I’m running an online store, and I need it to work on these incredible range of devices, but I still want you to deliver it for the same kind of price I was getting when we were just really delivering for desktop computers.” Because the economics don’t make sense any other way.

So you have to rethink your process entirely. And that for me is why techniques around sketching, collaboration, lean UX have really come to the fore. And we think of mobile disrupting our clients’ business, but it’s really disrupted ours just as much and in a good way. In a way that the work we’re doing is so much more collaborative, has so many more aspects to the design challenges we’re facing. We’re very fortunate.

Lara Fedoroff:            You have to look at it in the ecosystem. Everything is kind of smeared all around, all of these different experiences, whether it’s web, or mobile, or you have to look at the whole experience of the consumer, whether they’re in their home and shopping online before they go to the store – they get to the area, they look on their map, they get to the store, they have the web app, and they’re in the store. So it’s that. That is all part of the experience with all of those different devices along the way.

Giles Colborne:          Again, that’s a disruption that mobile has brought. Because instead of the paradigm of use being somebody going to a desk and sitting down and doing a task, it’s now anyone, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, trying to do something. And mobile has really kind of seeped into all of the cracks in people’s live. That’s given us another huge opportunity. We’re designing services now instead of web experiences. And so it’s opened up organizations to the skills and techniques that we have, insights we can bring.

Again, I spoke about how things were at the very start of my career. Could only dream of the kind of access we’re routinely given these days. So mobile has been just tremendous for industry. It’s transformed the way we do what we do, and the way we see what we do, and what we’re asked to do. It’s been an amazing, amazing few years.

Lara Fedoroff:            If people want to learn more about you and what you do, where should they go?

Giles Colborne:          I blog occasionally on my company website, which is I tweet about whether or not I’m catching my trains. Also what kind of interesting stuff I’ve seen in the world on Twitter, @GilesColborne. Or what’s best is come and meet me at a conference. Come and say hello. Come and have a conversation. I love that. That’s why I love coming to places like this. We’re talking at IA Summit and I’m very lucky to get to go all over the world. I think that’s something that’s maybe not always appreciated if you don’t travel outside of the US.

You don’t realize actually there’s different design cultures elsewhere in the world, and they take the things that we do and do them slightly differently. So I love the getting the opportunity to get to places that are doing them differently. I think it’s very easy to assume. If you go somewhere. Sort of off the track. They’ll say, well, we’re behind where you’re at in the UK, or in the United States. And it’s not really like that. It’s kind of they’ve evolved in a different direction for different reasons. And they bring a freshness of their particular perspective to it.

Again, I’m very lucky to get the chance to go around the world and see how people are doing stuff, how people are doing stuff elsewhere.

Lara Fedoroff:            Definitely within the different cultures, if you are traveling somewhere, and have the ability to stop by a company – maybe they’re a member of the Information Architecture Institute, or whatever – but to learn and deepen your understanding of how things work globally, not just where you are.

Giles Colborne:          That’s a great point, actually, that diversity of cultures applies to the businesses we work in, just as much as the countries we come from. As a consultant, someone who works in many companies, that’s something I have to be very respectful of. You can’t just come in, and say here’s the way to do something, or maybe in a few years’ time you’ll be able to apply this if you get good enough at the other stuff. That’s really not how things work.

You have to respect the companies have their own culture. That culture has grown up for a reason. You have to rethink the way you do stuff so that it works there and works for the people who work there. And you don’t leave and they go wow, that was great. And then four weeks later go, yeah, can’t make it work, so we won’t. And that’s a very common occurrence. A lot of times consultants put that down to failings in the client. I think really that’s a failure of vision and flexibility in the consultant and in their approach to sharing the ideas, or to implementing their thinking.

Lara Fedoroff:            So where do you feel like CX Partners has sort of a niche in the market? What is your strength?

Giles Colborne:          I think that we have tremendous heritage in user testing. We hang onto our staff. We’re very low staff turnover. So all of the project experience, the testing experience we have, tends to stick around. That’s incredibly valuable. It means that very often people have encountered problems before. And encountered ways of solving them. And can bring that knowledge and experience to the next project. We’re very lucky to have that.

We began also in our first client, our first project, was an international research project. And that continues. So we do a lot of work across all the different countries of Europe, but also across Asia, the Middle East, North and South America. There’s really very few places in the world we haven’t got the chance to go to again, that experience, that diversity is great. We’re so lucky there.

And those are two things I think set us apart. But in reality, I’m not going to kind of pick us up too much. We learn so much from our friends in other companies. And the people we meet at places like IA Summit that are most interested in just doing great work on this project today, than worrying too much about how can we be different, how can we be unlike them? What I want to do is just great work.

Lara Fedoroff:            That’s great. Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Giles Colborne:          It’s a real pleasure, thank you.


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Thanks to Steve Crosby for digital development, and original score piece by Cameron Michelle.

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Giles Colborne has been designing interactive user experiences since the early 1990s and runs cxpartners, a design consultancy based in Bristol and London that specializes in web and mobile user interface design for companies such as Marriott, Nokia and eBay. Giles and Richard Caddick founded cxpartners in 2004.

Connect with Giles here:


Simple and Usable

Think things have to be complicated to be powerful? Think again. In this clear, compelling (and beautiful) book, Giles Colborne makes the argument for simplicity. He shows us design as a process of thoughtfully crafting a product that is just simple enough, but no more.Whitney Quesenbery, Author Storytelling for user experience