Reduce: To Improve

This post is about progressive reduction, which is what I’ve recently read about. From what I have gleaned, progressive reduction is about those gradual changes (mostly reduction) in the UI elements that relate to your time-lapsed incremental cognition of a product. In other words, progressive reduction is in continuously adapting the UI elements of your product based on the gradual improvement in its usability.

But, why call it “reduction” if all you aim is improving the usability?

That’s because, simplicity matters. A simple, minimalistic design helps focus on the things that matter. In fact, today, simplicity is imperative. And, I think it is a brilliant idea to keep things simple. Simplicity works backward, which focuses on doing things that are intuitive. But, we’ll come to that later. As of now, let us focus on how to determine what’s simple.

I try to understand this by answering some simple, yet critical questions. First: who is the reader? This helps me understand who reads what I write. If the write-up is meant for an entry-level user, then I cover the basics before moving on to the complex topics. If the write-up is meant for an advance-level user, then I detail my point. Basically, I try to make sense of who do I make sense for.

Second: What’s in it for me? I try to relate my core offering (or, the feature) with what the reader is currently looking for (or, the benefit). This helps me create write-ups that are easy to understand and implement. Remember, the idea is to answer the “what’s in it for me” question.

In my previous post, I said that the goal of any technical communication project is to provide the solutions for the readers’ issues, and help them resolve those issues. That being the case, my feature-benefit equation is just what I need to deliver according to the readers’ needs.

Progressive reduction is an incremental process or a loop, which helps progressively reduce/adapt to usability.
Progressive reduction is an incremental process or a loop, which helps progressively reduce/adapt to usability.

So, I understand that it is important to keep things simple. But, why reduce?  That’s because, your once-an-entry-level-user eventually graduates to use the advance-level features. Consequently, the UI needs to adapt to their incremented cognition. Just as an example, all the entry-level DSLR cameras have just about the same functions that either a semi-pro or a pro DSLR has, with only one difference: Since the advance-level functions do not matter to the entry-level users, the functions are rolled inside menus. And, only the frequently used, basic functions appear as buttons on the camera body or kit lens.

This means that if I, as a professional photographer, use an entry-level DSLR, I’ll have to dig into the menus every time I need to change the ISO, shutter speed, or aperture-related settings. Can you now see the impact? Changing the interface according to the level of the user or usability directly impacts the user experience. That’s exactly why either a semi-pro or a pro DSLR has more buttons, or a better “manual” control, than an entry-level DSLR. This makes it easy for the pro photographers to switch functions.

That derives some key factors for us. As quoted in the ISO standards (www.iso.org, “Extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”), the three critical elements of usability are: Satisfaction, Efficiency, and Effectiveness. And, here’s what I understand about these elements:

Satisfaction. “I found what I was looking for; it is just the way I expected it to be.” Satisfaction is in reducing the time and effort; so, if I increase my readers’ convenience in locating the solution to their issues, they are most likely satisfied.

Efficiency. “I could do it right in the first attempt.” I think the statement is self-explanatory.

Effectiveness. “It is working the way it should.” I see that locating information is just the first-half part. The other half is in being able to use/apply that information. My documentation is effective only as long as I (or my information) can help my readers resolve their issues. Now, that’s simple.

Simplicity, as I mentioned earlier, works backward, because when you focus on improving the usability, you tend to keep things based on the gut/intuition of your readers. Usability shifts constantly towards – most likely – a more refined, or intuitive, use. Usability, I conclude, is a shifting target, and hence it makes sense to apply simplicity in the design of information.

Simple, intuitive information-based designs can help readers quickly find what they are looking for, and help them use that information to take correct actions at the right time. This “reduction” – in the efforts, time (the time taken to find the correct information), and tasks – should base the changes in the UI. That would make a workable, simplistic, and truly reduced design.

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