case study

The mistake of over-designing

In our quest to design simple, intuitive, and efficient things, we must be careful to not over-design. I have run into several examples recently where I believe the designer (or more often, the business employing them) is trying too hard—too hard to be everything, too hard to have too many options, too hard to up-sell, too hard to be original or innovative, too hard to be too simple—and has failed. A fine line is walked between questioning traditions and standards for irrelevance, age, or oversight, and respecting them for their tenure of existence. A delicate balance must be struck between production costs, competition, patents, marketing, aesthetics, work-flow, and usability. While we most often are not the one with the final say, I believe it’s a designer’s duty to satisfy a project’s many requirements simultaneously while diligently advocating usability—resisting and preventing the mistake of over-designing.

I am increasingly amazed at how often I find myself asking under my breath, “didn’t they try using this?” How did they get so far from their original idea? Why are these features in here? Why does it include the kitchen sink? Why are corporations so afraid that every service, department, and product has to be represented in everything? Why is the mantra less is more so easily forgotten?

Consider the Designing The Stop Sign video that appeared on YouTube several months ago. It humorously tells the story of a corporation charged with designing a stop sign, the agency attempting to complete the project, and the unfortunate result. “Welcome to corporate creativity,” the video’s producer says, “where groupthink and endless revisions help good ideas get executed.”

Thankfully it’s not that bad, right? Well, it’s really not that unrealistic. My point in discussing this video however isn’t simply to poke fun again at the corporate world or to bemoan the role of a designer. After we’re all done laughing (or crying), there is an important lesson to be learned.

You have a choice as a designer: are you going to make crap or are you going to build something great? Yes, I understand that most work as a graphic artist is commissioned and governed by your client, a board of directors, stock prices, an executives upcoming promotion, conversion rates, retention rates, and the current phase of the moon, but if you do not extend yourself beyond the process of production, you have sold yourself short and done a terrible disservice to your client, their customers, and yourself.

You are the advocate for the user. You must speak up. You must teach and train. You must question decisions and “requirements.” If you don’t, no one will. You must earn your client’s trust and help them understand the value in ensuring that something is not just usable, but useful. You must have skills and ideas. You need to be able to suggest alternatives and be able to back them up. Your opinion and training isn’t sufficient. There are tools to prove beyond a doubt what is and isn’t working. Suggest them. Implement them. Use them.

Consider the following three examples covering industrial design, interface design, and interaction design.

Washing Machine

Let’s look at my washing machine. What a mess! No, not the lint dust, the controls! How do you use this? How long does it take to decide what the options are and how much confidence will you have in the accuracy of your selection once it has been made? Why have they combined four options into two knobs? There’s plenty of space on the machine for additional dials. Would it really have increased the production costs for them to add two more knobs? Was it somehow easier for the electrical engineer to program and wire the circuitry with only two input devices? Why can’t there be one knob for wash temperature, one for rinse temperature, one for extra rise, and another for the end of cycle bell? Why does it have to be so hard to use such a simple device?

Well, it doesn’t have to be. They have simply over-designed it. Someone—could have even been a designer—probably thought “let’s keep this simple. It will look more elegant and refined if there are fewer controls.” There might have even been comments made about it being more approachable and less daunting if they kept it simple. Perhaps it really was easier to build this way. Perhaps it really made a difference in the production cost to combine functions like this. But is it worth it? I shake my head every time I put in a load of laundry wondering why it has to be so difficult to use. A control that makes a selection between three options or on and off should not require a key.


Next, Amazon. Their current design has been in place for a while now and I still have trouble logging in. Look the header over. Do you have any idea where to log in? The words “sign in” are there, but they are not a button or a link. I understand that I can sign in to get personalized recommendations, but I’m not very interested in that (at least at the moment), I simply want to sign in. I’m not a new customer, so I see no point in clicking that link and I doubt attempting to access my cart or my lists will do much good until I have authenticated. “Your Account” seems like the best option but that still seems like something that will not yet be available. Why is there no “log in” or “sign in” link? Why have they made it so difficult to use their site? Don’t they want me to purchase their products?

Of course they do. They have simply over-designed it. The marketing department is trying to up-sell me on the latest promotion, the product department wants to ensure that I am aware of and using the latest-greatest feature, legal is terrified that the company’s latest patents aren’t listed prominently on the home page, and usability pushed down, back, and behind until it is nearly completely lost.

Interestingly, there are actually three links across the header of the site that take you to the log in form (and three more with a second step), but none of them communicate this to the user.

Blogging Software

Any active user of the open-source blogging software WordPress knows how wonderful the 2.7 upgrade was. After months of work by a team of volunteers, a completely new interface was released. A major effort behind the update was increasing usability and in many ways they succeeded. There are a few elements however that fail, such as the bulk editing and delete. These two options have unfortunately been hidden within a drop menu that is followed by an apply button. Using this software on a daily basis to publish for multiple online journals, I frustratingly admit that I have to search for how to delete every time I use it. Why is it buried in a menu? Especially if there are only two (usually one) options in the menu? Why is the action titled “apply?” Why does something so simple have to be so complicated? Do they want to discourage bulk actions?

No, I don’t think so. They have simple over-designed it. Although, in this case I it might be better named as under-designed. Their table pattern has obviously received a lot of attention. They have implemented great features such as filtering and not cluttering the view with individual record controls until you hover over them with the mouse. I’m sure the choice of control for the build actions was selected because it matched the filter, but this was a mistake. One size does not fit all. Uniformity does not always result in success. Why are the bulk actions and the filter crammed so close together such that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from the other? If each instance of the data table pattern only provides one or two bulk actions then why can’t they simply be represented by individual icons, links, or buttons?


In the end, I encourage you to think. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t cut and paste. Just because a pattern worked in application A doesn’t mean that it will work in application B. Work tirelessly to promote usability and simple, effective design. Fight over-design with every resource you have and utilize technologies for testing and tracking user behavior and auto-optimizing interfaces. Encourage your clients to question and review their requirements and ensure that they have not strayed from their original goal. An application or tool that does one thing really well is much, much better than one that fails at hundred things.

posted by Wade Preston Shearer on Monday, Jun 29, 2009
tagged with over-design, usability, industrial design, graphic design, interface, group-think, design by commitee