Design Product Management | 2 min read

Complex, but not Complicated


Situation: Your users know you provide a feature, and they want to use it. But when they approach it they’re intimidated by long forms, strange questions, and weird labels.

They don’t know where to start or when the confusion will stop. So they walk away.

Some tasks are inherently complex. Sometimes there is no one-click solution. But complex problems don’t always need complicated solutions.

A complicated solution looks like too much work; it leaves users stuck, they either don’t understand the questions, or they’re wary of what they’re doing. So they skip it.

Three ways to keep complex interactions simple for your users:

  • Divide the task into simple steps, offering inline help and example inputs for every point.
  • Use a fill-in-the-blanks technique to make the complicated interface read like English.
  • Offer smart defaults and templated solutions that users can then edit.

One heroic example of this is the web app ‘If This Then That’ (IFTTT), which uses 7 steps to create a rule, but always asks you easy questions. This product let’s you program rules based on what happens in your web products.

Lets say you wanted to create a rule that sends all your starred items from Google Reader straight into your Instapaper account. This is a complex task, but thanks to the good folks at IFTTT, it’s not a complicated solution. Look how easy it is…

Real Example: An Intercom customer running an advertising network had a problem where users would sign up but never start a campaign. He set up Auto Messages to talk to these users and find out what went wrong. They told him that it was too complicated, too many questions, and hard to figure out.

He changed it. Now his new sign ups are given a campaign ready to rock, with a budget allocated, imagery uploaded, start dates set, etc. It’s much less daunting to edit this existing campaign than to create one from scratch. A massive win for him & his customers

Key Idea: Make complicated forms easier to pass by breaking them into steps, using plain English, smart defaults, and ready-to-edit configurations.