Don’t Make Me Think (Because I Can’t) – Stanford Study

The aesthetic case for simplicity in designing user experiences is the kind of argument you don’t even need to make.  It’s like trying to come up with reasons for maintaining a clean, orderly house over a dump.

Less obvious is the cognitive science behind simplicity.  There is new evidence that a simple design is actually better patterned after the structure (and inherent limitations) of human cognition.

In a recent Stanford study, Cognitive Control in Media Multi-taskers, a series of tests compared relative cognitive performance of heavy multi-taskers, those who take in a greater frequency of information, and light multi-taskers, those who take in less frequent amounts of information.

The unsurprising, but nevertheless fascinating outcome was this:

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.

It is important to acknowledge that as designers, we’re not just “getting out of the way of the end user,” we’re also controlling the end-user. Without some structured limitation, there can be no freedom.  This universal principle shows up in our social orders, in our living spaces and it shows up in human-computer interaction design.

Simplicity isn’t just about giving users what they want, it is about training the end-user to think clearly about their next step, filter out what is not in line with that action, and quickly adjust their browsing behavior in the event of a mis-step.

To some extent, limitation is about controlling the quantity of possible paths to improve the quality of the paths and the user experience of selecting those paths.  The reality is, limitations give us space to think like dignified, rational humans and not just like impulsive consumer machines.