This week I read a great article in Wired about the concept of simplicity and how in design, simplicity is overrated. I loved this part of the article:

… a major factor in screaming matches between people is the lack of a shared definition of a key term. ‘Clean’ for example, can be measured in degrees. Then there’s the word ‘simple’. Two people can have very different definitions of a word like that.

This got me thinking, how much time do we waste because of poor communication? How often when in an argument, if we got to the root of it, are people actually disagreeing over a term that they both define quite differently?

This happens in user experience, a lot. When it comes to design, there are a lot of words used that have very subjective definitions – clean, simple, delightful, modern, beautiful, minimalist, flat, playful, etc.

I’ve worked on so many projects where the client describes what they want and uses words like this. But the truth is, I don’t believe them.


Well, because there’s always an example behind each word. There’s always something they’ve seen before that’s driving their desire for the design to be clean, simple, etc.

So, how can we save ourselves from having projects go over budget and timeline because of extra changes fueled from a lack of shared definition of terms? I have two great tips for you.

1. Ask Clarifying Questions
First, when someone starts using words like that to describe something, I listen, but then I ask them to give me examples. If a client says, I really want it to look a bit cleaner, then I ask them “what are some examples of other clean designs you like?”. Once they start giving examples, then I go to those sites or apps and ask the person to tell me specifically what parts of it they like. This helps me develop a definition of what this person thinks is clean.

2. Identify The Matter Factor
Second, when someone disagrees about something — a design element, feature, content, etc — I’ve learned that it helps to understand just how much that matters to the person. I can recall meetings where there were 6 executives in the room debating a simple landing page – the meeting probably lasted for at least 90 minutes and they were nit-picking everything. In the meeting, one person stopped and said to another executive, “on a scale of 1 – 10, how much does this feature matter to you?”. The person said it mattered to them at a 4. The other person said it mattered to them at a 9. Point made. They stopped debating and moved on.

We can all stand to bring more clarity to communication and understand just how passionate people are about the things they’re arguing for or against.

If we all took a bit of extra time to understand and define other people’s perspective, we could save ourselves a lot of trouble!

Next time you find yourself in a tricky situation, try making extra effort to define vague words and do a quick 1 – 10 check-in to see if you’re on the same page.