Yesterday I got an email asking how we came up with simple designs for Basecamp and HEY, so I thought I’d share the answer here.

At a high level it boils down to a handful of foundational principles that affect the decisions we made:

  1. Always choosing clarity over being slick or fancy. We aim to make the UI totally obvious and self explanatory, by keeping individual screens pared down to the essentials, showing only one focused thing at a time, and so on. Good product design eliminates the need for an instruction manual!

  2. Caring about copywriting, and taking the time and space to explain things with words, instead of making minimalist UIs with lots of unlabeled buttons, etc. (Although we’re still guilty of having a few of those.)

  3. Prioritizing respectful interfaces that don’t overwhelm or try to nag the user into certain behaviors. We intentionally don’t include things like notification counts/badges, 3-column designs, or other distracting elements unless we absolutely can’t avoid them. We don’t like the idea of having “sticky” interfaces—we want our customers to use our products to get the job done, and then go do something else. That makes the whole design approach more peaceful in general.

  4. Having a strong editorial sensibility, and knowing when to split complex concepts into simpler individual parts. This one is more of an art than a science, but we have a strong instinct for breaking down problems until they can be easily understood in simple UI flows.

There’s one other thing that’s important for simple design. It’s not merely a matter of having clear or basic-looking interfaces. (It’s easy to make a simple UI that doesn’t really do much.)

The magic combo is having simple interfaces paired with powerful capabilities below the surface. For example, HEY looks simple, and it’s straightforward to use, but it’s backed by some deeply considered ideas, logic, and machinery that reduces the effort in keeping up with email. The interface itself is simple, but the thinking and the system behind it is complex. The product is valuable because it saves people time and anxiety dealing with the terrible email mess that they had just learned to live with.

This was originally posted on Signal vs. Noise.