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I have a general question about layouts incorporating toolbars, sidebars, and/or panels.

Common design sense might stress simplicity, not to cram too many elements into the UI design. But we often see more complex interfaces employ a mix of these control elements. Take Photoshop, for example:

Photoshop interface

We have a crowd of panels, sidebars, and a toolbar on top. I guess as designers we're used to working in this setting, but if we step back and look at the interface, would we say it's too complex? Does the complexity of the program justify the complexity of the interface?

Here's why I'm asking this question: when we are creating an interface for a project, how should we know when we're "allowed" to use a complex interface, and when we should keep things simple?

  • @Jawa thanks for the edit, I was going to change the title but forgot. – Albert Xing Apr 4 '14 at 20:33
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Complexity is a relative term. It depends on the context of the user and the tasks they are trying to complete using your interface.

For example, the instrument panel of a Cessna 182 will look very complex to a non-pilot:

enter image description here

Similarly, the instrument panel of a Boeing 787 will look very complex to a private pilot that has only ever flown a 182:

enter image description here

The question then becomes what is the least complex interface you can design that allows your user to operate at their level of proficiency? The measure of "too complex" is going to be determined by how well your user is able to perform their tasks.

By that measure, you should never set out to make a complex interface. You're never "allowed" to make a complex interface. But complexity may be required in order to achieve your goals, to which end, you need to add only the minimal complexity required to complete the task.

To summarize: a superficially complex interface may not be complex to the user if they have sufficient aptitude in the problem domain.

A well designed interface, while having many interrelated functions and numerous elements, can be designed in a manner that does not make the already complicated function more complex than it needs to be.

A design that does not adequately take into account the users' abilities within the problem space and/or does not remove complexity where it is not essential will be perceived as "complex" or "difficult to use". It is only your user, through user testing, that can tell you if the design is too complex for them.

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    Great answer, +1. Proficiency was the key word here. – Albert Xing Apr 4 '14 at 20:40

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