Processes: Layered Complexity

Layered Complexity gets around the problem that you can simplify/filter too far, and take out information that the reader/listener actually wanted.

How do you solve the problem of making it simple for the majority of readers, without excluding those than need to know more?

Have you ever had a remote control for your TV or DVD player that had a few buttons at the top, with a door or slider at the bottom that covered most of the buttons? e.g. if you wanted to change the contrast, set the time, or something that were unlikely to use – it was probably hidden. Play, Record, the numbers 0-9… all of these were easy to get to?

This is the principle of Layered Complexity – you limit the available features to the ones that your user is likely to use most of the time, while still providing the other features if they need them on a different level.

This principle can easily be applied to information. Rather than giving as much information as possible immediately, just provide the basics – with a link to get more information if needed.

Examples

  • An executive summary on a report allows managers to get the key points, while still having access to the information if something needs further investigation.
  • When you search for something in most search engines, the results page not only has the title of the pages, but also a snippet of the text on the page. This allows you another layer to check before going to the page.
  • Think about going into a bookshop, looking for a book on learning French. Rather than reading every single page of every single book in the shop, you first look around for the “Languages” section of the shop. You then find the books, and read the titles of the books on the shelves for one that looks about right. You take one off the shelf, and read the back cover. It gives you more information on who it is targetted for (e.g. beginners, intermediate) and what you can learn. Only then, you decide if you want to buy the book and read the whole thing.In this example, the signs in the shop, the titles of the book, the back cover and finally the contents of the book were all “layers” of information which allowed you to quickly get to what you needed to know.
  • Some websites, particularly in technical fields, use acronyms a lot. Most readers will know what these mean, but some will not. It’s impractical to spell out every time one is used, so they turn them into hyperlinks and link to a definitions page.
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