So simple it’s state-of-the-art!

I continue to engage in some occasional consulting on interface design. Most recently, I encountered a challenge: a client was deploying a web site for an internal audience which, by the client’s own admission, didn’t know how to use their PCs well nor did they have much time to “figure out” an interface. The client’s expectations were, in short, for an interface so simple that users with no PC knowledge could quickly use it. At the same time, it needed to be “state-of-the-art.” Say again?

At one of my previous companies, our designers operated on the premise of “elegant simplicity,” so I know that having a simple interface make a striking and memorable impression is not impossible. But simple form is different from simple functionality. The users in question undoubtedly needed simple functionality because their computer skills were weak. Yet, there was a  simultaneous demand for “state-of-the-art” functionality — something cutting-edge, modern, and “next-generation” both visually and functionally. I was told both had equal priority. Something had to give.

As I worked to understand the reason for the dichotomy, the discussion became about the client’s priorities more than the design of the interface. The audience of the site needed simplicity, and the clients needed to impress their higher-ups with “state-of-the-art.”  Whose needs will take precedence? Most of us would suggest the audience’s needs should be accommodated first, but time will tell if the clients (and their higher-ups) will listen to this logic. But there is another alternative.

If the key audience already possessed foundational PC knowledge, needing to make the interface so basic wouldn’t be as significant a concern. Perhaps this would allow for a more “state-of-the-art” experience, meeting the expectations of all. While this consulting gig is far from over, I shake my head at the thought of what is really happening to the key audience. Is the client is willing to spend so much money and time addressing and fretting over the end users’ possible issues with a solitary interface for just one internal web site but dismiss the larger issue? Why can’t the key audience use their PCs? If these folks really don’t know how to use a computer, surely incredible amounts of productivity are being lost on more than just web site interfaces. Why not fix the root issue and help make this entire group of key employees more self-sufficient?

Have you ever encountered your own “simple vs. state-of-the-art” dilemma? Would having the user possess an understanding of core computing concepts have helped?

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