Minimalist websites: what you need to know

4 min read
Daniel Schwarz
  •  Jul 19, 2019
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Minimalist websites help users think faster.

In a day and age when users are becoming more impatient and tech burnout is becoming increasingly common, designing for calmness and clarity—so, minimally—is important for the success of any Internet-age business.

Let’s define minimalist website design and explain its benefits for you and your users. We’re going to go into:

  • Aesthetic markers of minimalist design
  • UI benefits of minimalism
  • How minimalist design keeps users from developing tech burnout, and why that’s important for your success

Visual aesthetics

When we think minimalism, it’s normal to default to the aspects of minimalism that we can see and interact with.

The Apple aesthetic, for example, is recognizable from afar and a major trendsetter in the tech world. Their design is always aesthetically pleasing, despite being relatively simple.

And the reason for that is that their visual style is minimal.

Apple’s minimalist visual aesthetic

Let’s explore what that really means, the various factors that contribute to a minimal visual aesthetic, and why those factors can be so effective.

White or black

White’s neutrality isn’t only easy on users’ eyes, but also on their minds. The color doesn’t symbolize anything—meaning users won’t be distracted by it or be forced to think about what the color actually represents.

White backgrounds allow important elements like calls-to-actions and meaningful text to stand out for maximum impact, while also ensuring optimal color contrast between them. Its brightness, when matched by contrasting colors, is a great tool for accessibility.

Slack’s white background makes text and buttons more vibrant

Black is white’s more “serious” alternative. It still conveys a minimalist, content-focused UI while conveying a more “suited-up” feeling.

Is black the new white?

Sans-serif typography

Sans-serif fonts look cleaner than serif fonts, which is why they’re so often relief upon by bigger businesses. Combining sans-serif typography, with large font size and/or a bold font weight, will enable maximum impact and emotion, and, if we choose our words wisely, they can be the most captivating aspects of our websites. It’s a case of less is more.

Microsoft, taking the “less is more” approach to the max

Bold colors

Bold colors contrast well with both white and black backgrounds, although when used as background colors themselves, they can look almost as minimal as white or black while also conveying a bit more emotion and meaning.

Deciding to start a business can be an emotional decision. Shopify reinforces this fact with terrific imagery and beautiful, bold colors.

Gradients are an excellent solution for using bold colors without overwhelming the user, especially when paired with a sans-serif font. Here’s an example from Dribbble showing us how minimalism can exist in various degrees, and how minimalist websites can come in many different shapes and sizes.

Emotional, but simple.

Gradients are minimal yet emotional

Flat design

Flat design is a web design trend that surfaced around 2012. It is a visually appealing take on minimalism, although NNGroup highlighted serious usability concerns due to the fact that flat designs were applying minimalist concepts to interactive elements like buttons, causing them to seem as if they weren’t interactive at all.

That led to “Flat 2.0,” using rounded corners and shadows to add more depth to these interactive elements without cluttering the UI.

Rounded corners are effective because they’re similar to real-life buttons—which have rounded corners. Shadows are more relatable because they give buttons a 3D element, separating them from the design and recalling real-life elements.

Buffer: Simple and flat, but not too much

If we fail to clarify that interactive tap targets are interactive then our design becomes unusable as the user is then forced to work out what’s clickable and what’s not. This complicated thinking goes against everything that minimalism is supposed to achieve.

As Steve Krug said in one of the most important design and usability books ever, Don’t Make Me Think!

A minimalist visual aesthetic will certainly make our designs cleaner, but we shouldn’t overdo it when it comes to designing UIs.

Focus on clarity/clickability first, and visual appeal second.

Designing minimal UI and content

There are four main concerns with designing UI and content for minimalist websites:

  • Clarity. How clear is the information?
  • Findability. How easily can the user find things?
  • Choosability. How easily can the user make decisions?
  • Scannability. How easily can the user scan the document?
The InVision Studio homepage is clear and uncluttered, but additional information is available if needed.

Avoiding visual clutter

Rule of thumb: if something is useful, but not to the majority of users or in the user’s current context, hide it.

An example of hiding something to reduce cognitive load is when moving a less-important navigation item into an off-canvas menu, only to be revealed when actually requested.

The thinking behind this is: why force the user to think about its meaning when they probably won’t even need to see or use it anyway?

We also need to consider the fact that if there’s too much information, users will be unable to recall important information at critical moments.

Cognitive load affects our memory.  When overwhelmed by too many objects or choices, we get paralyzed and don’t know where to go. No bueno.

Using visual hierarchy to decrease cognitive load

Visual hierarchy should indicate the importance of each element and influence their viewing order. This means we’ll need to visually prioritize certain elements to help the user understand exactly what’s happening.  example, imagine a product where the price is displayed using a font size larger than that of the product title. The user would perhaps learn that the product costs ten dollars, but be confused for a few seconds because they don’t yet know what the product is. This is an even worse scenario when it turns out that they don’t even care about the product, as they’ve now processed information that’s not even useful to them.

It sounds like a small caveat, but the cognitive load from each little design flaw adds up and can result in the user becoming distracted.

Providing fewer options for a more streamlined experience

As described by Hicks’ law, more options to choose from equals a slower response time. When there are too many options, the user may suffer from decision paralysis, which is the inability to choose an option as a result of cognitive overload.

Nike’s website, for example, was designed to only show you a few products at a time.

Besides the standard minimalist qualities, Nike clearly shows the user what’s on their roadmap without displaying too much information about each product.

Atoms’ website is a smashing example of where the number of options have been reduced. The main navigation houses only four nav items, with less-important ones moved into the website footer. Once the user opts to “Find Your Fit,” the user was presented with a conversational, one decision at a time, approach to choosing the right product.

Reduce the number of options to make decisions easier to make

Designing functional friction

Much like visual clutter, functional clutter also adds to the user’s cognitive load and can serve as a huge distraction resulting in a significant reduction in conversions.

eCommerce is a great example of this, where 34% of abandoned checkouts are due to users being forced to create an account, adding up to a colossal financial loss.

34% of abandoned checkouts are due to avoidable friction

Hypothetically speaking, this doesn’t mean that we’d need to enforce guest checkout in this scenario, but we could make creating an account optional. If we really wanted to minimize the user’s cognitive load, we could instead ask users to create an account after checking out so that the user isn’t even distracted by the thought of creating an account! 🙌

Reduce friction for more conversions

Creating a user flow map is an excellent way to reduce website friction before diving into prototyping.

[Try out InVision Freehand, a sketching tool that makes creating user flow maps a breeze.]

That way, if there are any moments of friction as a result of functional clutter, we can then rethink the user’s journey and instead design a much smoother experience.

Preventing tech burnout for your users

We’re living in the most sensory version of our world that has ever existed. There is no shortage of apps and websites or devices to contain them. The accelerating onset of new technology means that our everyday objects—watches, kitchens, backpacks—are becoming digitally infused with new technology and new features claiming to make our lives better.

But the truth is, in the long run, only a handful really do.

More tech, more problems. 😔

As flawed human beings, we can only handle a certain amount of cognitive load, and yet almost everything that we accumulate contributes to that load. This applies not only to the products that we own, but the setup and maintenance that they require, and the knowledge and information that’s needed to operate them.

And this assumes that we do use the product—I mean, have you ever stopped using a yearly subscription just a few months into it due to lack of time or motivation?

Social media is a little different. Many users are addicted to it, with many dedicating at least two hours every day to social media alone.

There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to use, read, watch, or otherwise consume everything that we’d like to, although the real dilemma is the long-term effects that this has on our mental health.

It makes us feel burdened.

Burden is a mix of stress and obligation. Stress because we’re not allowing ourselves to ever wind down, filling every waking moment with some form of technology. Obligation because of the way that many products unethically retain users using gamification and lock-in contracts. And then there’s our love of bargains and the next best thing.

The temptation to overdose on technology is everywhere.

The effects of burden on website users

When users feel burdened, there are two things they might feel:

  • Impatient. They’ll only be willing to dedicate a small amount of time and energy to engage with the website, and they may abandon it if they hit even a tiny roadblock.
  • Frustrated. If the user becomes overwhelmed with options or choices they’ll be less likely to convert and more likely to try a competitor or abandon their search completely.

In short, when users visit a website, there’s a fair chance that their impatience and dwindled attention spans will cause them to exit prematurely. Sadly, this is just normal behavior for most users today.

How can minimalist design help users?

As digital designers, we’re able to reduce our products’ cognitive load—reducing stress, agitation, and frustration.

Our websites can be a breath of fresh air in a digital world that constantly demands our attention. The trick is to design minimalist websites that don’t contribute much to the user’s already heavy cognitive load, so let’s take a look at how we can improve website UX by taking a minimalist approach to web design. Along the way, we’ll also take a look at a few inspiring examples of fantastic minimalist websites.

Minimalist websites are about more than visual aesthetic. Minimalist design is a process, and one that entails being as clear as possible but with as little as possible.

Further reading:

* Featured photo by Sarah Dorweiler, Aesence

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