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Less is More, More or Less

Jul 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

Grocery Store Aisle

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

An Appley Apple

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

Magic Number 7

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.

Follow the Conversation

21 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Joshua Lay Joshua Lay said on Jul 8, 2010

I agree completely Nishant,
We should get to the core the purpose of the website. Once that has been found present that minimal set of items that achieve this purpose.

If something has to be added, something should be sacrificed. People forget about the user experience and place their own needs.

This creates this cluttered, over choice filled experience. They can forget they aren''t the user the site is for.

Marco Sousa Marco Sousa said on Jul 9, 2010

Good read. Didn''t know about millers law, but i guess i have been already using it for awhile :)

Simplify = Win.

Ian Muir Ian Muir said on Jul 9, 2010

I will have to keep Miller''s Law in mind. Any ammo in the fight for simplicity is welcome.

As always, good article Nishant.

kaishin said on Jul 10, 2010

Nice read!
However I think the title was a little bit misleading, as the "more or less" part led to me think that there will be a counter-argument later in the post... :)

Francisco Inchauste Francisco Inchauste said on Jul 10, 2010

"The bottom-line? Prune. Cut. Shorten. Simplify."

I used to think along the same lines, and would use companies like Apple as an example of this. I''ve found through experience not to take such a hard-line approach. It depends also what you mean by options. Navigation and controls in the UI could be considered options and should not be reduced/shortened just because of simplicity. Simplicity is good, but doesn''t always mean what we think (minimal UI). We can''t ignore the context.

I recently wrote an article about complexity and simplicity, and their many faces.

Ryan Bollenbach Ryan Bollenbach said on Jul 10, 2010

This is such an awesome article, I really like the points you brought up.

I especially enjoyed the fact: the average human could hold 7±2 objects in working memory.

It''s true, I personally always try to pour my mind onto paper and use a little short term memory as possible. This allows me to use it for creating new ideas.

Keep up the great writing!

Yossi Kolesnicov Yossi Kolesnicov said on Jul 10, 2010

As a rule of thumb, keeping things simple is great, but as your website/product grows, it''s hard not to let it grow and become more complicated.

It''s almost never possible to plan ahead for this complexity, unfortunately. Maybe then it''s time to start reorganizing.

Thanks for the interesting read!

loige loige said on Jul 10, 2010

Great article... the 7+-2 rule is really a interesting topic!

Melinda Melinda said on Jul 10, 2010

I really like your apple example. I am an apple fangirl and had completely forgotten that Steve Jobs streamlined the product line as well as revolutionized the design of the four products. George miller''s rule of 7 is very powerful. Thanks for the reminded :-)

Brian said on Jul 10, 2010

Gary Klein''s "Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions" discusses this topic in excruciating, yet illuminating, detail. Posted here because it''s on Steve "Don''t Make Me Think" Krug''s recommended reading list.

Thanks, and BTW nice blog design!

Lourenzo Ferreira Lourenzo Ferreira said on Jul 11, 2010

The title has tricked me to think there was a counterpoint, but anyways the article is nice to read.

John John said on Jul 11, 2010

This is so true, however this article needs to be directed at Marketers. Most designers know that less is more, unfortunately, many marketers don''t. I work for a major gaming company and our marketing teams like the kitchen sink approach.

Régis Kuckaertz said on Jul 12, 2010

bq. "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 choices"

Beware of this example, because it''s Miller''s law applied to the wrong design artifact. Navigation items are usually displayed right in front of you, thus there''s no need to memorize them.

Actually, navigation is one area where it has been proven that more is definitely less. Read"this newsletter of Human Factors International on breadth vs depth".

Ritesh Reddy Ritesh Reddy said on Jul 12, 2010

"Simplicity is the key to brilliance." A quote by Bruce Lee whose philosophy of Jeet Kune Do advocates the use of simple techniques in combat. This eventually led to the growth of MMA or Mixed Martial Arts as we know it today. But the application of this philosophy is not limited to combat but to all aspects of life and design too.

It''s always infinitely harder to simplify and a fresh clean slate is always a delight to the eye and mind. Unless you are Bart Simpson during detention and you have to fill up that blackboard with an imposition.

Matthew Griffes said on Jul 12, 2010

Great post. Thanks for writing it. In ''How We Decide,'' Jonah Lehrer explores the manner in which our emotions are connected to our thoughts. Our very thought process, how we come to make a decision, is influenced heavily by how we feel. Ask New England Patriot QB Tom Brady how he knows how to throw to the right/open receiver under a heavy pass rush, and he''ll tell you he just felt that was the right decision.

Lehrer underscores your point; the notion/argument that complicated decisions prone to info-overload - like buying a house - should not always be left to the prefrontal cortex. Complicated decisions are often best left up to our emotions (our gut, our intuition).

Robin PArduez Robin PArduez said on Jul 13, 2010

Apple was a good example to use. An large product line can be overwhelming. We see this trend with car manufacturers, with a trend toward simplification of product lines and a clear categorisation of what product is right for you as an individual.

It''s possible that people''s attention span is getting shorter, so a clear message is likely to lead to conversion far more than overly complex messages.

Nishant Nishant said on Jul 28, 2010

Apologies are in order for the most irresponsible turnaround time on responding to comments; especially such thoughtful ones. :-(

@Joshua, @Marco, @Ian, @Ryan, @loige @Brian, @Melinda, @Yossi, @Matthew, @Robin — Thanks and word :-)

@kaishin, @Lourenzo — I plead guilty to one count of pandering. :-)

@Francisco — I''m certain if you read through my article again you''ll find that there isn''t a hard-line approach anywhere. Starting with a goal to make things as simple as they need to be is hardly hard-lined (in fact, I think you agree with it based on your own article and comment) :-) One of your commenters said it best, "Things should be as simple as can be, but no simpler".

@John — My gut almost made me write, "Hell yeah," but then I thought of several marketers who don''t fit that stereotype. I feel your pain, though; been there, and go back from time to time.

@Régis — Thanks for the reference. Couldn''t agree more with some of the findings. Indeed, the Craigslist approach is often the best one. But even Kath concludes that mixing breadth and depth is generally a qualitative choice when it comes to site structure, and shouldn''t be taken lightly. I''ve found that Miller''s Law is generally at the table in that choice (and for good reason).

@Ritesh — Kudos. Making a great point that uses both Bruce Lee and Bart Simpson is no easy task :-)

@Matthew — Thanks for sharing "How we Decide". Seems like Lehrer and Gigerenzer make the same argument. I''ll definitely have to check it out.

essex website designers essex website designers said on Aug 10, 2010

hi there

I like the article, I found it very informative, also I found the 7+2 theory very interesting, as Website Designers we look for every way we can improve our service and our own site.


prasad prasad said on Aug 11, 2010

this is simply great thought! i guess that is going to help me a lot while designing screens for an application. as a designer i always look for simplified layout and user friendly interface. but its not so easy to bring this out of your imagination each and every time.


Web Design Company USA Web Design Company USA said on Nov 10, 2010

It''s a nice article with great thoughts. It''s really helpful while designing the website. Thanks for sharing with us.

ketan raval said on Jan 21, 2012

I agree on mo options mo problem and KISS process.. as well.. we have been varying our service from very long.. and thn realized restructuring is important..