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PHOTO: Juuso Salminen

“It would be cleaner that way,” the engineering lead said to the senior UX architect. “Without the shopping cart icon?” the UX architect replied, “The best-known icon paradigm of the last 20 years? The icon that leads every customer confidently to the checkout?” The engineering lead answered with a resounding "Yes!" — then wandered off to instruct his developers to remove the shopping cart icon on just a few screens of the ecommerce app, overruling the UX architect's design.

He wanted to add a large, red “CHECKOUT” button on those screens as he was sure this was “cleaner” than the beloved cart icon. He also didn’t consider if users would find the missing shopping cart icon frustrating, confusing, disappointing or inconsistent. He only knew he had a hot idea and it was the one that should be built.

What Do We Mean By 'Clean'?

Clean design typically means uncluttered, simple, easy to parse and more “white space.” For some, it means striving for minimalism. For others, it means removing distractions and focusing on the content, the key message, and the most important action.

In 2017, Fast Company wrote about a study by design analytics company EyeQuant that attempted to correlate how “clean” a website was (or not as the case may be) to how likely people were to bounce, or leave after only viewing the home page. The study gave sites a score based on how cluttered the home page was, and matched that to the bounce rates indicated by Alexa.com.

While it wasn't the most scientific of studies, EyeQuant were able to support the hypothesized correlation. Customers do not want to feel bombarded, overwhelmed or distracted. Websites with more visual clarity had fewer bounces.

Related Article: Using Behavioral Intelligence to Improve Your Site's User Experience

'Clean' Is the Opposite of Clutter

Would a shopping app be easier to parse and less cluttered if it had no shopping cart icon that drove customers to check out? The short answer is no. Removing the shopping cart icon left people confused about whether they had finished their purchase or not. People never fully checked out and then left the app, incorrectly thinking they bought something. That’s a large fail.

'Clean' Is About More Than the Removal of Elements

Our fabled engineering lead appears to believe that “clean” design is about removing everything he’s not sure has relevance in this exact moment. While that sounds like an interesting philosophy, most of the planet would agree that an ecommerce app needs a shopping cart icon in the navigation to easily get people to their checkout from any app screen.

Creating a cleaner interface is not just about removing elements and competing for who can be the most minimal. It’s about deliberately selecting the information, elements, and actions that are most useful, valuable and relevant to the customer. It’s about putting your empathy hat on, deeply understanding the customer’s task and needs in this moment, and making sure they have a clear path to achieving this.

And most importantly, it’s about designing something that is so easy to learn and easy to use that you can remove all of the instructional text many websites and companies love to include. Design something more intuitive and you won’t need hints, instructions, tutorials or tooltips.

Related Article: Good Design Is Intuitive

Fighting for Less-Cluttered Interfaces

Marketing, business relationships, seasonal promotions and other stakeholders are all crying out for space on the home page or app screen. Each team is sure they have the most important message and not only need the real estate, but should be higher and higher, and more and more dominant in the interface.

UX practitioners are often fighting for cleaner design, especially on retail and ecommerce websites and apps. The UX practitioner must handle all of these requests and find the balance. When non-UX roles are collaborating with UX, design terms shouldn’t be thrown back at creative co-workers. UX practitioners are expected to have strong reasoning and data; they expect that from teammates as well.