Creating a simple website can be deceivingly difficult. Despite the idea of simple being so inherent, it’s actually a complicated thing to figure out. In the words of Steve Jobs, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

We may all know something is simple when we see it, but it’s an entirely different ballgame when we start to think of how something is simple. When it comes to websites, simplicity is an overlooked tool that can be powerful when used correctly.

What Makes Something Simple?

There’s no simple answer for this—no pun intended. It’s true that the most complicated thing about simple is figuring out what makes it well, simple. Harvard professor George Whitesides defines simple in his TED talk Towards a Science of Simplicity.

He manages to pin down the unpin-able in three (dare we say it) simple factors. According to Whitesides, simple things are:

  • Predictable – They’re easy on the brain and familiar.
  • Accessible – We don’t feel dumb when looking at them; they’re easy to get.
  • Serve as Building Blocks – They allow us to build off them with our creativity.

A good website ideally has all three of these things built into it.

It doesn’t confuse us when we look at it, it feels vaguely familiar without being overdone and it’s infused with creativity and innovation. Sounds simple enough, right?

* Who’s Doing It Well? ZipStart

Why Do Our Brains Crave Simplicity So Much?

In 2012, Google and the University of Basel did a study that found users judge a website’s aesthetic design and perceived functionality in 1/20th – 1/50th of a second. It takes us less time to judge an entire website than it does to snap our fingers.

Often, we’ll make these “snap judgments” so fast we mistake it for instinct or emotion. Really, it’s all mental power that’s responsible for our disposition to simplicity. Our brains are hardwired to make snap decisions as part of our flight or fight response.

Thanks, evolution.

This biological reaction still has a huge impact on the first impressions we make towards people, things and even websites. Our brain makes these first impressions based on perception of threat. That’s why we love simplicity’s predictability so much—it feels safe and familiar.

* Who’s Doing It Well? Blue Apron

Cognitive Fluency Is to Blame

We know nobody likes to be hit with complicated scientific words, but you know how it goes—the only way to define the simple is with the complex. So, what does cognitive fluency have to do with this whole simple idea anyway?

Well, cognitive fluency is defined as our brain’s love for the familiar. It’s the feeling we get when we receive new information. Is this information safe? Is it going to be easy to digest? Should I click out of this browser and never return?

These are just some of the questions your brain fires off when it sees a new website. If something feels right to you, that’s not just your gut speaking. It’s your cognitive fluency. The more something feels easy and right, the higher the chance that you’ll receive it positively.

* Who’s Doing It Well? Dropbox

So How Do I Create a Simple Website?

Let’s take all this psychological mumbo-jumbo and put it into information that you can actually use. If you want to make your website simple, predictable and comfortable, you need to do two things:

1) Keep it predictable, but not boring.

There’s a fine line between simple and just plain boring. Your website needs to have the basics like a navigation bar, a checkout button for an e-commerce site and a search feature. If your site doesn’t have at least some of these basic elements, you risk confusing your visitors.

On the other hand, try to avoid templates that look run of the mill and overused. Infuse some innovation into your design and content to help your brand stand out as original.

2) Combine beauty with function.

If this sounds like a tall order, it’s because it is. Making a website simple starts with cognitive fluency and ends with accessibility. Remember George Whitesides’ three factors to define simple? Here’s a refresher—predictability, accessibility and building blocks.

Make sure that your site is familiar to your users and easy for them to use.

Creativity is your friend, but this is not a moment to let your imagination run wild. You want an aesthetically pleasing design that is accessible to a wide range of users.

If you confuse or intimidate them, they will leave.


If there’s one thing you should take from this article, it’s that simplicity is never simple.

It’s a vital aspect to have in your website’s design and functionality, but one that you’ll have to work for. Finding the right balance between predictability and creativity is key to mastering the art of simplicity in web design.