When it comes to best-in-class user experience design for web apps, one principle that reigns supreme is -- “keep it simple, stupid,” or KISS for short. Ignoring the slur with which it closes, this rule is at least as important as anything else when it comes to creating sticky interfaces.
Even the “stupid” bit is important to keep in mind, too, though. Some of the most disruptive products of our time are so minimal that anyone can instantly figure out what they’re for and how to use them. In fact, if you can design a browser-based tool that does what other apps already do, but your app is simpler -- sleeker and more sparse in design and therefore more intuitive to use -- then you stand a better chance than others do of gaining market share in a given space, even if it’s a space already flooded with competitors.
Related: 10 Reasons Not to Build a Mobile App
The advantages of simplicity
It’s all too easy to forget KISS and incorporate bells and whistles, unfortunately. The temptation among product managers is to pack as many features as they can in to every app. If it does more things, then it will be more useful, right? Not necessarily.
As the industry gets more and more crowded, it’s becoming increasingly important to remember that riches are to be found in niches. People are not interested in finding solutions to everything that pains them -- they hunt for products that help them with something specific. Too many features make an app confusing -- all the more so when it all has to work well with just a few inches of mobile screen space, as is the case even with web apps. Maintaining long lists of features, moreover, can be taxing on development resources, as browser and OS updates demand compatibility fixes over time.
If you want to get ahead of the competition quickly, create a product that does one thing -- and does it extremely well.
Minimalist challenger apps
Perhaps the quintessential, most extreme possible example of this trend may be the Yo app, which literally does just one super straightforward thing -- for its first year, anyway. Yo pings the person of your choice with the eponymous, one-word message: “Yo!”
The idea is that it’s a brief, nice form of communication, without imposing on either the sender or the recipient to engage any more than the brief, “I was thinking of you” message. And the app really does close to nothing else -- which is either genius, as some think, or silly, as others have noted. Or both.
Here are some examples of more products that saw rapid adoption upon rollout, taking big chunks of market share away from established competitors thanks to their adherence to the KISS principle.
Quick social post queuing with Buffer
One of the darlings of the SaaS (software as a service) renaissance, the Buffer app is often praised for the corporate culture that spawns it and the content marketing that boosts its digital footprint. With all of that hype, it’s easy to forget how the social-media post scheduling product itself got so hot -- by being simpler than the competition.
Prior to Buffer, the social dashboard market had been dominated by Hootsuite, but that app required too much hands-on maintenance -- users had to manually set a date and time each time they scheduled a post.
Buffer allows users to establish a global schedule for posts to go live on social media. This way, with the schedule set, when a Buffer user wants to schedule a post, all he or she needs to do is access the handy bookmarklet, click on “Add to Queue,” and the new post indeed lies in wait until the timing pre-determined to be best for audience engagement. By streamlining the process of scheduling posts, Buffer rapidly became a go-to tool among professional marketers, today boasting some 2 million users.
Easy, light customer billing with Invoice Ninja
A fully bootstrapped, open-source project run by two independent workers, Invoice Ninja helps its users, also independent workers, to easily issue digital invoices. Recipients can download invoices as pdf files, print them and pay them online.
The system is especially light on bandwidth, and its interface is highly intuitive. One of Invoice Ninja’s signature features is live pdf editing, whereby users can preview invoice changes in real time on the same screen as the edits themselves -- that’s about as KISS as you can get.
With its full-featured free plan, Invoice Ninja got its start as an alternative to FreshBooks, a product managed by a Toronto-based company that lost plenty of freelance street cred upon accepting $30 million in venture capitalist funds last summer. What’s more, FreshBooks involves unnecessarily clunky menus and load times, hefty fees and completely unnecessary features like client fingerprint verification.
Once again, the simpler challenger product was able to rapidly gain market share.
Custom mini graphics with Canva
Canva is “amazingly simple graphic design software,” as its tagline touts, and it’s a lifesaver if you lack talent and resources but need to create custom graphics for marketing materials. Anyone can use it to create beautiful images with text, even if you don’t have a designer bone in your body, have no fancy fonts and no stock images.
The Canva app’s drag-and-drop editor makes it all easy, providing all of the design elements and an easy interface for personalizing professional-grade layouts.
Before Canva launched in the summer of 2013, the only mainstream viable option for creating custom graphics was Photoshop, a client-end app that involves significant barriers to entry -- a price tag in the hundreds of dollars, a computer that can handle its professional-grade functionality and a steep learning curve to master its complexities. By doing away with pro-only features like silhouetting, kerning and manual color correcting, the freemium, browser-based Canva quickly rose to prominence, acquiring some 750,000 users in its first year alone.
New apps are being developed, designed and released every day, so it’s an exciting but daunting time to join the fray.
If you code, look to make your mark in this golden age of online creativity. After all, you have the good fortune to know what’s new and what’s hot, and you can move to emulate the move to streamlined functionality and simplicity of design wherever you find the opportunity.