Many general design principles convert well into product design. But I think that no rule is more applicable than the following: Less is more. That’s the first thing I ever learned about design. I would like to talk to you about how much of our job as UI/UX designers is about reducing clutter and chaos while preserving messaging and hierarchy. If I do a great job, you’ll spend most of your product design time wondering what you reduce not what to add. At the end of the day, all the fancy illustrations and animations are just icing on the cake. And just like any icing, too much of it can stand in the way of a great experience.
The big why
Before we dive in, let’s get theoretical here for a second. In a nutshell, what I’m trying to say is that in order for our users to be able to execute with ease the tasks for which they are using our products, they must be able to do so with the least amount of brainpower, and here are three reasons why:
People are busy
People come to our website and app already thinking about something. They already have an issue or a goal that they are focused on. The last thing we need is to force them to think about something else. People don’t like to think when they’re trying to simulate a loan online. The same could be said about almost anything: sending an email, working on an excel sheet or even when they’re throwing bunny ears and cat whiskers on their photos for god knows what reason. People use our product not with the intention of drawing pleasure from the product itself, but because they need to fulfill a need. Otherwise, that product is called a game and games abide by a completely different set of rules. As a general rule, I treat users as if they had the “Men at work” sign on their forehead. I just made it less sexist.
People don’t like to think altogether
Generally speaking, people don’t like thinking at all. Unless we’re doing it for pleasure like playing chess or solving a puzzle, we’re just not that into it. We do it all the time, but we just don’t like it when it’s being forced on us. Remember high school math? It was an exhausting, frustrating and draining activity. It was literally painful for some people. This is all to varying degrees depending on who you ask of course. If you’re reading this, you probably do a lot of thinking and thus you don’t mind trying to figure out a new website or piece of software. Heck, you probably do it for fun. But the bulk of our users don’t, and if you try to empathize with them, you might actually find out that there are a few very good reasons why.
On one hand, It’s a natural consequence of evolution. The brain accounts for around 2% of the human body weight, yet it consumes around 20% of the body’s total energy. It makes perfect sense why we would want to keep this tiny power-hungry organ on a very short leash. This is especially true since it didn’t require a lot of thinking in order to be able to survive the early days of the human race. Big scary animal? run! Round red fruit? Eat.
Thinking wasn’t always a common activity
Deep thought was a luxury that was not something we evolved to do. Whether we could if we wanted to or not is a completely different issue. Think about it: who did the thinking in ancient Greece and Egypt? Did you think Hannibal came up with those fancy-schmancy strategies because he was a commoner? Did you think Aristotle, Averroes, Descartes, Marx, Mozart were regular people? Regular people didn’t catch a break to think until very recently. So don’t blame them for not liking it very much.
On the other hand, we were also encouraged by our educational system not to think that much. You might think otherwise but I beg to differ. Our society and school systems reward compliance and memory rather than creativity, imagination and deep thought. It claims the opposite but it fails miserably to deliver. That’s why people are wired to look for what’s familiar. Because blending in, doing what one is told, complying with the norm, seeking what feels familiar, repeating what one is taught always brings the best results in school. As a matter of fact, it’s a requirement. Do that for at least 12 years of your life and I bet you you’d be doing way less thinking than you could be. We feel a tremendous burden when we have to actually figure something out for ourselves. We automatically want to reach for the manual, the instruction guide because that always worked for us in school. If we’re asked to figure out a new interface, we’re in uncharted territory and we want to escape it as fast as possible. That’s what the back button is for on your browser. I call it the hell no button.
People aren’t used to thinking, so they’re bad at it, so they hate it more.
We touched on this already but let me give you more. Consider a typical day in your life. Apart from actual work, most of the things we do don’t require thinking at all. Seriously, think about how you get up in the morning and prepare to go to work. Think about your commute to and from work, think about your daily interactions with your coworkers. Think about when you come home and chill on the couch. No Thinking required right? It’s all wired in our systems. We call it a routine.
But why do we have routines? It’s because it allows us not to think. It’s kind of like walking. You don’t really think about it, you just walk. And when you think about it, your walk becomes funny. You can’t do it because you don’t know how. You just never think about it. So you go back to not thinking and lo and behold: it’s working again! Mesmerizing! Better do less of that thinking stuff everyone is talking about. Looks like it doesn’t work!
Limited mental bandwidth
Here’s another reason directly related to the first few we just discussed. Even if people wanted to, weren’t busy and lead lives where their thinking efforts where celebrated and encouraged, we’d still want to give them an experience where the thinking requirement is kept to a minimum. It’s because they can’t handle it. Our brains, mighty and powerful as they can be, can process a very limited amount of information at the same time. It’s called mental bandwidth and it’s more limited than you might imagine.
Magicians know this very well. As a matter of fact, it’s the very basis of many of their tricks. Leveraging our limited capability to process huge loads of information allows them to bottleneck our cognitive systems which allows them to slip in malicious pieces of information that result in our absolute astonishment. So even if people are paying 100% attention to your product, with zero outside distractions, they can still miss your point if your product doesn’t have the correct information hierarchy that would allow them to discern what’s important and what’s not. Here’s a great TED talk that humorously explains this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOG65rSM5fA
The greats are on to this
This is the reason why Steve Jobs, and now Mark Zuckerberg and many other leaders of the world always wear the same clothes every day. It’s to reduce the number of choices they have to make on a daily basis thus allowing themselves more mental space for the important decisions they have to make. It’s true that it’s not the same situation, but it capitalizes on the same fact that the mind can handle a very limited amount of information at a time.
Just like magicians, we as designers have to leverage this fact to serve the objectives of our projects.
It’s perhaps also the same reason why many geniuses tend to have very disorganized workspaces. It’s simply because they can handle it. I, for example, can’t for the life of me get any serious work done until I arrange everything is specific drawers and folders. I need the icons on my desktop to be arranged a certain way and kept to a minimum. Many highly intelligent and creative people don’t have to. They can precisely recall where everything is and tell you there’s a reason why it is there and should remain so.
Having everything out in the open enables them to have direct visual access to their assets thus be more creative and productive. But why can’t most people stand messy desks? It has to have a lot to do with taste and many other different factors, but one thing is for sure: most people don’t have enough mental capacity to handle it while still being productive.
So when we talk about why we should keep the thinking requirements to a minimum, we have to mention the fact that the things that we like most in life are actually very simple. We like what’s clear, smooth, continuous. It already wired into our brains, perhaps for some of the reasons already mentioned.
The thing that we need to keep in mind though is that the factor is not how easy or simple the experience is. It has more to do with how easy it is compared to what we think it should be. If it’s too simple, it might look fraudulent or phony, even though that risk is getting slimmer every day. Managing that Delta is the key to retaining a customer. The expectations are already being set up before the user even visits the website. They are being crafted by the competitors, the substitutes and your marketing. So the goal is not to go as simple as possible. In fact, that goal can bite you in the rear.
I remember the first days of using google docs. I couldn’t find the save button. You probably can relate to this too. I was so frustrated that I just hated it. I needed to get that crispy click on the floppy disk icon, I needed to press Ctrl + S a thousand times a minute to keep my peace of mind. It was simpler without it, but it was better with it, until it became second nature and now I can’t live without it.
In his brilliant book “The design of everyday things”, Donald A. Norman explains the concept of conceptual models. Basically, a conceptual model is a users idea of how something might work. Our conceptual model of a bicycle is that you sit on the chair, you peddle the things that are linked to chain and the big wheels turn so you go forward. If you see a completely new device with paddles and wheels in a similar configuration, you instantly put it under the same conceptual model as a bicycle which allows you to understand it without needing to try it or think about it much. This is how we know what is clickable or not. It’s how we assume that the contact form is going to be on the bottom of the page or on a page linked as the last item in the navigation menu. It’s very helpful.
By leveraging existing conceptual models, designers can flatten the learning curve on their products and thus allow users to take full advantage of it, right from the first time, without having to do any thinking. The word with a different color is a link, the floating card on the darker background can be dismissed, the bigger header should be read first, the greyed-out field is inactive, the terms of service are somewhere in the footer and the logo is a link to the home page. No thinking required. The less new conceptual models your product requires, the more you can be understood.
I just wanted to add a last note to conclude this article. The goal of giving people frictionless experiences is not necessarily in the best long-term interest of the user or the product. I talked a lot about people not thinking and how that relates to product design. The goal is to show why we need to eliminate all possible noise, not to promote making products as mindless as possible. “idiot-proofing” is not product strategy. Some conceptual models are broken or old and should be challenged. Back to the google docs example, Google did great by breaking that pattern and there are a lot of other patterns that need to be broken in my opinion.
Take the edit button for instance. Why can’t I always edit any content that I have the right to edit just by selecting it or long pressing on it? Some editors allow this already but I’d like to see it on medium, I want to see it on facebook and everywhere. There shouldn’t be an edit button, there should be a save edits button. It’s difficult for me to come up with more examples because I’m so used to the things I’m used to. let me know if you think of any UX pattern that’s broken and is due for a change.
Application to Product design
I think that our primary job in product design is to simplify the interface by eliminating chaos and disarray which will enable the design to take up less brainpower to process, which will make it more understandable and likable. This also allows the brain to focus on the things that matter and perhaps enjoy them. This is something that we do by intuition. Everything we’re doing is in the service of that goal whether we know it or not. I thought I’d dig a little deeper to show how is it exactly that we’re achieving that. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I go into the nerdy details.