Minimal design is relatively new, and it can be confusing sometimes

For years, I thought products with a minimal design would be easy to use. While sometimes it’s true, being minimal is different from being intuitive. And it can be confusing to use.

Intuitive design is a familiar design

A design is intuitive when a user can immediately understand and use it, without consciously thinking about how to do it. Users will feel that a design is intuitive when it is based on principles from other domains that are well known to them.

For example, when I was a kid, I’ve learned to use Microsoft Word. Then I remember the first time trying Google Docs, I immediately knew how to use it. The user interface was almost the same.

Despite having a complex layout, marketplaces like Amazone or Alibaba are intuitive. Their UI has links, buttons, navigations, and ads everywhere. A while back, I thought Alibaba’s design was a complete mess.

But once you get familiar with online shopping, it’s easy to find something when you need it. For example:

  • To search for an item, you can use the top search box
  • To discover items in a category, you can navigate to that category
  • To find the best price or nearest shipping location, use the sorting feature
  • And the site’s logo will take you back to the home page

Minimal design removes things

Different from being intuitive, minimalism focuses on removing less-necessary elements to reduce distractions.

It’s hard to find a popular website that has a minimal but not intuitive design. Because if it were, it would have improved. Though, there are a few cases where a product feature has a minimal design but not intuitive.

For example, Twitter’s Settings page. There are many options and without a search bar, it’s ridiculous to find the one I need. The last time when I wanted to find the word-blocking option, I had to google which section it belongs to.

Another example is Google Photos' Album page. The UI looks dead simple, but I have no idea at the first look. Would you recognize the word `SP` as the album title, and an editable field?

Another similar example is Medium’s new post page. In 2017, I had the chance to build a blogging platform for the Vietnamese community. Our create post page was much inspired by Medium. When introduced to the users, we quickly learned it didn’t fit. The reactions we had were “How do I use it? Where is the insert image button, make text bold, etc?”.

When getting exposed to a new UI, people need guidance. While Medium’s new post page doesn’t have much, and is almost like a blank page. UX like this would confuse new users.


Takeaway

Minimal design focuses on removing things, while intuitive design creates a sense of familiarity and comfort. When designing, it’s important for your product to be intuitive.

Minimalism is relatively new, and sometimes it can be confusing to use. In that case, consider improving your design based on your target users. You can also improve the onboarding process, (i.e use interactive walkthrough) or having instructions for users to get familiar

Thanks to Fabricio Teixeira, An Tran, Rahul Chhabra, Kévin Miguet, David Nguyen, Husein Kusuma for proofreading and feedback

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