Thursday, September 7, 2017

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention (Herb Simon)

Information density is one of my favorite issues. I’m pretty sure it crops up on every test I run.

And the particular problem I run into is typically the one that Simon points out here. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve written that n users couldn’t find x, and that we should “consider simplifying the UI,” I’d be a (very slightly) richer man. 

It’s also pretty obvious where it comes from too. Marketeers and execs are famous for wanting to provide as many features as possible, but to also make sure that everything is just one click away. Faced with this kind of “logic”, I try to point out the total fallacy of the old one-click rule and the primacy of information scent, but it can sometimes be a struggle.

I also like to point out that simpler interfaces are just easier to use. I think, these days at least, most people do get that. I only need to point to Google, or apps, or Nest, or even Tindr to make my point. 

I also, though, like to get them to think about the user’s experience as a whole. And that means not just whether users see each marketer or exec’s particular pet feature. 

I try to get across that a little here, a little there amounts to something I like to call “additive design,” a guaranteed way to get a system or site or app to sink under its own weight. I try to get them to consider that, as Shlomo Benartzi has written, “every new feature comes with a cost.”

Finally, I also like to tie in what I call the simple, basic “yuck factor.” My users are great at providing me with ammunition for that. If I had a dollar for every quote where a user basically says “TMI!” …  Even better, I’ve found that these quotes are typically some of the most pithy ones I get.

What I really try to get across to my clients in this instance, though, is that this visceral reaction on the user’s part has some very real consequences. In addition to making things harder to find, it oftentimes make the user not even want to try, and just give up. And that - and just clutter in general - can have a major negative impact on brand perception. And we all know how worked up marketeers and execs can get about that.

Herb Simon was quite the guy. A Nobel Prize winner, he also won the Turing Award, and made major contributions to psychology and sociology as well. He’s also the father of the “think-aloud protocol,” the basis of pretty much every usability test that's run. I was lucky enough to have met him in grad school.

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