Less is More, More or LessJul 8, 2010 In Design By Nishant Kothary
Design decisions based on gut feelings, simple reasoning, and rules of thumb can be as effective, if not more, than those based on complex analyses
I recently learned something extremely fascinating from a book called Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. In Greg Gigerenzer’s own words:
Intuitions based on only one good reason tend to be accurate when one has to predict the future, when the future is difficult to foresee, and when one has only limited information. They are also more effective in using time and information.
What Gigerenzer means is that people generally rely on one good reason to make decisions when the outcome is truly unknowable. And, that’s OK! It’s worked wonders for us for thousands of years.
But the more interesting insight hidden in there for us designers is that our best bet at predicting the future for something truly unknowable—say, how an audience will react to a new product, or what’ll happen to the price of a certain stock—is often to follow your gut.
Mo Options Mo Problems
Now, this may seem preposterous to our spreadsheet generation, because it runs counter to the currently dominant microeconomic paradigm called Rational Choice Theory. According to it, human beings are rational—Homo Econonomicus—and given a set of alternatives, will weigh the costs and benefits of each to pick the most suitable one. Increase the alternatives, and you increase the chances of finding a more suitable pick, right?
The credo "more options are better" has become a staple in our generation. From supermarkets that carry hundreds of different types of cereals to our propensity to follow thousands of people on Twitter,we’ve given in to the notion that more choices lead to better outcomes. Sadly—and you know this in your gut—the exact opposite is true in most cases. More options lead to confusion. Not conversion,as many marketers would have you believe.
Gigerenzer’s own take on that:
Complex analysis, by contrast, pays when one has to explain the past, when the future is highly predictable, or when there are large amounts of information.
Gigerenzer cites numerous studies in his book supporting this critical point, but there’s a classic one we’re all too familiar with—Apple.
An Apple a Day
When Jobs took over Apple in 1997, Apple sold over 40 different types of products, from printers to handhelds. Particularly overwhelming was Apple’s lineup of computers, which hovered around 50 different models. Which Performa is right for you? The 5200CD or the 5215CD? Jobs later confessed that even he couldn’t figure out the answer to that question. So how could customers?
Among the other unpopular restructuring decisions, Apple cut most of its product lines and reduced its computer line to four machines: novice and professional versions of a desktop and a laptop. History will remember it as a key step in facilitating Apple’s comeback.
But, why is it that too many options paralyze us while fewer options spring us into action? Entire books have been written on the topic, but if you want a succinct explanation, you need look no further than Miller’s Law.
Miller’s Law: The Magic Number Seven
Princeton’s celebrity cognitive psychologist, George Miller, published the seminal paper on the topic of human cognition in the Psychological Review in 1956. In it, he argued that the average human could hold 7±2 objects in working memory; this is now fondly known as Miller’s Law. Miller’s insight has had an immeasurable impact on the design of everyday things in the last 50 years.
The classic application of Miller’s Law in the software industry is when a designer tries to convince stakeholders that the navigation menu of a web site needs to be limited to seven (give or take two) choices. But more generally, we can credit our subconscious pull towards "keeping things simple" to Miller; at least within the context of user experiences. That is no small feat.
Now if only someone can do the same for the benefits of white space.
KISS my Point
Your users are already overwhelmed. Jonathan Anderson of UXMag illustrated this in a very eye-opening post—These are your users… read and be horrified. But as Gigerenzer writes, even when they’re not overwhelmed, they make their choices based on one or two criteria. Providing your users with more options is generally counter-productive. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of thumb.
The bottom-line? Prune. Cut. Shorten. Simplify.
And once you’re done?
Simplify some more.