February 18, 2012

Cognitive Burden

When you create a website or other product, you eat, sleep and breathe it. You become an expert who understands the subtle nuances of your creation. It's like being able to tell a Merlot from a Cabernet by taste.

Users don't. They just see two red wines.

It's tempting to try to solve this dissonance with education. After all, everything is obvious to you — so it isn't too much to ask your user to have this same knowledge. However, this causes a dangerous shift of the cognitive burden to the user.

Rather, why bother making the distinction in the first place? Unless it's vital, you are just unnecessarily giving people one more thing to think about, no matter how simple the explanation is.

Imagine someone knows nothing about wine. You ask if they would prefer a Merlot or a Cabernet, and they respond with a confused look. Both are types of red wine, you tell them.

Just call them both red and be done with it. Wine is an art, and people care about the difference because they enjoy it. Your product doesn't have that luxury.

It's not that users are stupid or lazy. They just have more important things to care about. You aren't competing only with similar products — you're competing with last night's episode of The Bachelor and that cute girl at the coffee shop and elections and taxes and jobs and families and emails.

This is why simplicity wins.

There is so much noise that people have become fatigued.

So don't ask the user if they want a PlusPro Upgrade™; simply ask if they want more space. Don't make them figure out they need to log in with a username rather than an email address; let them do either. Don't make them read instructions; simplify the process.

Even if it's subconscious, everyone appreciates when the cognitive burden isn't on them. Users shouldn't have to understand the product like you do in order to use it. People are so overwhelmed already that anything that seems even slightly confusing is perceived as a straw waiting to break the camels back.

When making something, stop and think — what's literally the worst that will happen if I simplify things even more?

About Gregory Koberger

I'm a freelance developer and designer, formerly of Mozilla. I talk a lot about web development, technology and user experience — sometimes on my blog but mostly on Twitter.

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