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Simple user interfaces: the snow plow principle

by Mike B. Fisher on December 6, 2010

Quick Summary: A key goal of user experience design is to keep things simple. Unfortunately websites and applications create problems for users by employing interfaces that are too complex. In this article we’ll explore a way to think about what interface elements are truly necessary for your users, and which can be reconsidered or eliminated.

Simple and intuitive interfaces are all about balance. To identify the truly essential elements of an interface, it’s helpful to look at the problem in a different context. In part 1 of this multi-part article I’ll cover an admittedly unusual way to view the problem of simplification. In part 2, I’ll describe some ways to apply this approach.

The user interface “snow plow principle”

Let’s take a moment to ponder the humble snow plow. It’s a device of unquestionable value. It keeps roads safe and can be called upon in snowstorms and blizzards to clear paths to otherwise unreachable locations. In many areas around the world it’s an essential public safety tool.

But if you owned a snow plow, would you drive it to the corner grocery store? Or to work every day? Probably not, unless you lived in Antarctica. Most of us live in climates that require the use of snowplows only periodically, during the worst weather conditions – if at all. In fact, many people have never benefitted from a snow plow. But where they’re needed, they’re indispensible.

So what does this have to do with user experience and interface design? Think of building an interface with a great deal of unnecessary information and capabilities as the metaphoric equivalent of using a snowplow for one’s daily commute. Sure, it gets you there – but what portion of the capabilities are actually needed? Would a smaller, more efficient vehicle work just as well? Is it possible to achieve the goal without firing up the heavy equipment?

Designing user interfaces for blizzard conditions

Websites and applications often employ interfaces and information displays that are designed to cover all of the possible uses, rather than those with the highest probability. Let’s go back to the snow plow. If you had a snow plow at your disposal, it’s sensible that before starting it up you’d first consider the context, for example:

  • Current and expected weather conditions
  • Road conditions and known road hazards
  • Goals and requirements for the trip
  • Skill and experience of the driver

But web pages and software interfaces are often built with a “more is more” approach, and consequently the interface is designed to accommodates most or all of the possible use cases in its default state. This is the equivalent of offering users the keys to your snow plow for a trip to the corner store on a snow-free, sunny day. You’re getting them from point A to B, but via a cumbersome interface that displays too much information and/or offers too many options for the majority of users and use cases.

One example of this phenomenon can be found in older versions of Microsoft Word. Those who have used Word for years will recall that until recently it presented a huge number of options by default, making it difficult – especially for beginners – to find a desired option among the bevy of choices. The interface gave equal visual weight to its myriad functions even if they were rarely or never needed by typical users.

With Word, Microsoft was in essence offering keys to its snow plow for users’ daily commute. (To Microsoft’s credit, while the newer “ribbon” Office interface isn’t perfect, it’s considerably more customizable and does a much better job of emphasizing high probability functions.)

Other examples are easily found. Web and software interfaces are often designed to display information and options for all users under all circumstances, rather than the most likely choices for the highest probability customers and scenarios.

Simplification – a.k.a. parking the snow plow

Now that we’ve defined the problem we can begin to examine solutions. How do we ensure that a diverse set of users can access the information and options they need while preventing “snow plow interfaces” from slowing down and confusing everyone?

In part 2 of this article I’ll cover some specific ways to keep the snow plow parked while still meeting your user and business needs.

Photo by Joost J. Bakker. Creative Commons licensed.

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Related posts:

  1. Simple user interfaces: the snow plow principle, part 2
  2. Streamlining user interfaces, part 1
  3. Reduce costs and improve usability with visual standards, part 2

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

KGensler December 21, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Hi Mike -

I am curious to know when you will publish the 2nd portion of this article? This is one of the biggest struggles at my company, any insight you can provide would be very helpful! Great article!

Mike B. Fisher December 21, 2010 at 3:18 pm

This holiday season has been busier than I expected, but I should be able to catch up on articles in the next week or so. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading.


Yingying February 6, 2011 at 1:02 am

Hey Mike,

Thanks for the article!

I think not all companies are clear about what types of customers they really target, so an evaluation for target users are extremely helpful.

BTW, you raised an interesting observation about MS Word. Actually I am using v2007 and still found some confusing parts about it. When I right click to get the pop-up menu, there are some commands that have short keys marking like “(M)” – merge cells, but I never found how to use a short key for these commands.

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