When we look at a page to evaluate it for optimization, there are several questions that come up time and again: Is the message clear? Are there paths to conversion? Is it trustworthy? Does it follow conventions and meet user expectations? These are excellent questions but they miss addressing one important point directly. When assessing a page, it’s critical to ask: How complex is this website? The answer to this question, it turns out, can have a significant and surprising impact on user attitudes and behavior.
The debate over website complexity is heated. Some argue that increasing simplicity leads to increasing usability, which in turn results in satisfied customers. Complexity, in this view, makes us confused, frustrated, or annoyed. At the same time, there is support for intentional complexity—what is sometimes called “good complexity”—among those that recognize simplicity diminishes as features and capabilities increase. Clearly, there is room for a middle path. But how much complexity (or simplicity) is enough? How much is too much?
Researchers have attempted to answer this question. Previously, experiments had uncovered two somewhat complimentary findings. The first study found that website effectiveness and complexity shared a curvilinear relationship. In other words, effectiveness—measured in terms of consumer response—was low both when complexity was very high and very low. Websites with a moderate degree of complexity were found to be most effective.
The second study found that while increasing complexity had some positive impact, there were negative effects as well. Specifically, increasing complexity was associated with an overall positive increase in attitude towards and engagement with the site. At the same time, users reported finding the complex websites difficult to use.
While these results clearly suggest website complexity is not a binary variable but one that effects consumer attitudes and behaviors in a range of ways, they do little to suggest what designers should actually do to increase performance. Recent research has confirmed these previous findings but, more importantly, helped address the practical questions these findings create.
First, the type of goal the user has impacts his or her preference for more or less complex websites. When the goal is focused on a utilitarian outcome—completing a discrete task like filling out a form, for example—enjoyment and positive attitudes decease as complexity increases. When the goal is hedonic or psychological—focused on creating happiness for a child by giving a gift, for example—increasing complexity actually increases positive attitudes and enjoyment.
Perhaps more interesting, this research found the type of complexity influences specific reactions, depending on the type of task at hand. Increasing visual complexity, the study found, increased enjoyment and perceptions that the website was interesting. Increasing structural complexity led to feelings of confusion and frustration, decreasing overall enjoyment and generating negative attitudes toward the site.
This is obviously useful for anyone working to optimize a website and can be applied to test ideation in several important ways. It offers a compelling reason to create tests to establish the most common type of goal of you customers. One test, for example, could emphasize the emotional value of a product versus a list of features. This test would help you understand whether customers are motivated by hedonic or utilitarian needs. The structural and visual complexity could then be adjusted—through testing—accordingly.
Unfortunately, the answer to whether simple website designs are better must be left at “it’s complicated.” Using testing to develop a better understanding of the impact this complexity has on consumer attitudes and behavior, however, can lead to powerful insight. Ultimately, this insight will allow you to tailor the design and structure of your site to the needs of your customers, leading to a more usable, more enjoyable, and more profitable experience for everyone.
Read more: Identify your best test ideas. Download this Test Prioritization Scorecard!