There are a lot of websites out there where you can see the 80/20 rule at work; when a website has a good look but just a small proportion of the site’s features and content is doing all the hard work. The rest is maybe distracting, irrelevant or even getting in the way of the customer journey.

Why does this happen? We all know that great stuff just works and consequently great design often goes by unnoticed – simplicity wins hands-down over complexity.

Twitter shows us we can all say more with less, and pictures engage us better than words. Look how image-based Facebook quickly displaced text-based sites, such as Friends Reunited. 

I suspect that cumbersome or over-designed websites are often the result of the designer loving what they do… maybe just a little bit too much.

Murdering your darlings

Originally coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1916 publication On the Art of Writing, “Murder your darlings” has become a well-known mantra for writers.

It’s meant to remind them not to be self-indulgent with their prose.Go ahead and write it and be proud of it, he says, but if it gets in the way of the story, then kill it.

“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934.
“I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

I first came across this mantra about 18 months ago in an article by Jervis Johnson (Games Workshop) recommending the same process for games designers. The phrase stayed with me ever since and is, I believe, the most practical and sound principle for anyone in a commercial creative role.

Here are a few ideas that will help you avoid having to commit murder (or if you do, to reassure you that you’re doing it in a good cause).

Consult the evidence

If you are redesigning a website make analytics your first point of call. Sift through the data puke until you find the numbers that matter: what’s being read, what’s being ignored, what’s being searched for?

What path do visitors take? Look at your click-throughs, bounce backs and anything else that tells you how the existing site is really performing (wipe out all perceptions and assumptions).

Use what you learn to map out a slicker, more relevant user journey that really hits the sweet spot. Get rid of the 80% surplus content. You don’t need it as your customers are telling you they don’t want it.

Question the motives

Is it simple? Does it add value? Is it intuitive? How does it help the customer? And – most important of all – are you solving problems or creating art?

It can be so tempting to try the latest new idea or technique we’ve perfected, but if it’s not right for the user, it doesn’t belong. 

It’s not always easy to be selfless (after all, it means letting go of some of the fun stuff), but we are designers not artists and we have to push our personality to one side in order to best serve the needs of the end customer.

You’re going to have to question your client’s motives too – and perhaps even help them murder their own darlings.

Work ‘least to most’

Instead of reverse-engineering, start your design with mobile in mind,  there are far more smartphones and tablets in use than there are computers!

This doesn’t just mean leaving out big and awesome images and videos, it just means look first at your core interface and the minimum content required delivering the premium customer experience.

Only add more content into the desktop version of a site if there is a valid user driven reason for it.

Test, test and test again

Make every effort to get user testing built into the budget and the project plan. Paper prototype your wireframes and then build and test a quick (and basic) HTML prototype.

If there isn’t the budget for external testing, grab a few colleagues (who aren’t familiar with your project) and bribe them with coffee to spend an hour testing your prototype.

The more testing you do before launch the more the site is based on real user journeys and experiences. Your initial assumptions may be 80% correct – but I’m sorry, in this business that’s a fail.

And finally…

If you do find yourself having to trash your art for functionality’s sake, do it with good grace! There are thousands of us out here who feel and share your pain.

And if it hurts too much to kill your ideas off completely then stash them away in a dark file, put them in your portfolio, turn them into your own business idea or simply share them with a colleague.

When your passion has cooled, and the next brief rolls in, empty your mind of pre-conceptions and reach for the carving knife…