Gone are the days of slow, stagnant design workflows. If your work isn’t iterative, flexible, and fast, you’ll fall behind the agile pack. Despite this whirlwind pace, we still need to make meaningful designs — and make sure they’re working for our users. When we’re moving quickly, how do we know when our designs have lapsed into frilly decorations?

Here are my thoughts on why user-centricity is crucial when we think about design, decoration, and strategy. After all, when is a delightful UX flourish a boon to your user (and also to you and your client), and when is it needless clutter/decoration?

Rather than deciding when design has lapsed into decoration in isolation, it’s time to put that decision in the hands of the users. Ask them, test them, and they’ll let you know when your design has gone too far (or hasn’t gone far enough).

Removing Clutter (a.k.a. Decoration (a.k.a. Friction))

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Let’s call “clutter” and “decoration” other words for “friction.” Friction, in essence, embodies design that goes too far — particularly in terms of trendy design, from yesterday’s flash to today’s parallax. As soon as it interferes with UX, it’s a deal breaker; it’s clutter, it’s friction, it’s a shelf chock full of dust-collecting trinkets.

We want to subtract as much friction from that equation as we can for the sake of good design and UX. Here’s our equation that seeks to remove friction in order to create better experiences for our users, regardless of the context:

Betterment = Simple + Compelling – Friction

So let’s get back to the basics to see what’s friction and what’s solid design. With the help of an authority on the topic — Dieter Rams and his ten principles for good design — we can evaluate our design and see how his work has influenced ours (just take a look at a recent Awwwards article on Rams-made and Rams-inspired design). As we look at our design, we check Rams’ criteria: Is it as unobtrusive in its appearance as possible? As little design as possible? Useful?

Especially as our design accumulates layers of complexity – and when it has many stakeholders – we have to stop and ask ourselves if that next layer, that itsy-bitsy addition, that new interaction really adds to our creation: What real purpose is that new layer of complexity serving? Does it support your objectives? Does it add delightful interactions to create a polished or premium experience?

And when we get back to this basic question of purpose, when you really break it down, the difference between decoration and design becomes quite clear.

Many authorities on the topic agree that a design’s greater purpose reveals if it is a good design or excess:

Here is Zeldman on content-driven design, which results in purposeful design:

Content informs design; design without content is decoration. Content has the same relationship to design that product has to advertising. Good ads are based on the product; good designs come from and facilitate the content. This is one reason we bring content strategy to every design assignment, and one reason we insist on working with real content, not lorem ipsum (placeholder) content. Nothing is sadder than a beautiful design that works great with lorem ipsum but doesn’t actually support the real content.

And here are more authorities from the field:

Though each design thinker has their own unique take on the details, the basic concept is shared: Simplicity is key, so make sure each layer you add to your design has an objective – if not, then it’s just decoration!

Holding True to Your Goals

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Are you telling a story through your long scroll page? Do you want a memorable experience to show up in blog roundups to establish your brand and spread its reach? Is there an easily measurable signup conversion number you want to reach? Your goals will dictate what is design and what is decoration. By holding true to your goals, you can see when your design slips into decoration.

Let’s take easter eggs as an example. Maybe they seem superfluous, but they are legitimate design — not decoration — if your goal is to connect with your users via a fun inside joke. Or if your goal is to get more traffic from blog roundups. Or to establish the playful tone of your brand.

Of course your design won’t please everyone who runs across it, so keep reaching your target audience as your #1 goal (and make sure you determine who that is with persona exercises, research, etc.).

Remember that your goals may change as the project shows new problem spots or opportunities to go a step beyond your original plan. Keep up a flexible mindset, and you’ll be able to more easily see when a design deviates from the path and becomes decoration.

And, if you/your client/your coworker are seeing decoration cropping up before user testing, that’s definitely a sign to get a second opinion. Actually, get a ton of second opinions from your users. To follow your goals, you need to engage your users; they’re the ones that will let you know when your design has gone too far!

Leaving it in the Hands of Your Users

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Besides waiting for upset tweets, there are a variety of ways to get user input. As you let your users give you a hand, you’ll need to have your methodology, tools, and techniques in order—and then you’ll find out whether your design is simply decor.

To evaluate whether a user’s flow through your website is interrupted by clutter, tools that look at funneling (i.e., the steps a user takes from entry to the desired outcome) will help a lot. Then, when you want to know how a user does within a page, there are even more tools. Here are some recommendations.

For user-reported feedback:

For observing on a macro/funnel level:

For observing on a more micro level:

One usability issue uncovered by CrazyEgg‘s click maps was on our SlideDeck site. Users were clicking like crazy on images of our slider WordPress plugin — and the image didn’t respond.  So then we knew to rework those images, editing them so that they wouldn’t be confused with the actual interactive product. What did we learn? Less friction means less frustrated users.

Though new trends may be enticing, you might be testing your user’s patience with too much parallax or other decoration. Take a look at whether your visuals — or 80+ MB pageless site — is getting out of hand. All-too-trendy design (Flash, now CSS/HTML5/parallax) gains momentum and goes overboard quickly, but, once again, keep your goals in mind. Maybe you do want that catchy parallax page all over the interweb roundups. Just check that you’re engaging your users and moving towards your goal. That’s what the iterative process is for, too: to keep us in check with signposts along the way. Go ahead and see how far you can push – you’ll get pushback.

Finishing Touches

With the tools put in the users’ hands (whether they know they’re holding them or not), you’ll be able to better discern when you’ve frustrated, lost, or (hopefully) supremely delighted your users. Learn how to nix the extraneous ornamentation and get down to seriously good design. Iterate your designs, iterate your user testing, and iterate until you’re at the end of the road. (That’s when all those redesigns and tweaks have clearly paid off.)

How have you reached out to your users? Share your favorite tools with us (and the user feedback lessons you’ve learned)!

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