If you have ever used a website where you felt confused, overwhelmed and/or found it too complicated to complete a task, rest assured it was probably not your fault. You were a victim of ‘excessive cognitive load’ a commonly diagnosed issue in the digital world. As designers, we aim to build an experience where tasks are easy to complete, easy to learn, easy to repeat and as much as possible, enjoyable. ‘Good design’ enables ease of use and satisfies the requirements of functionality, security and safety. Although various design techniques allow us to show more and more on a screen with the use of animations, videos, images etc as well as text, it is still read by a human brain and that can be overloaded.
The working memory, distinctive from short-or long-term memory, will process any incoming information and allocate attention. The more information it receives the more information it will aim to process - although working memory has limitations as well. However, working memory capacity cannot be quantified; an early research (Miller, 1956) considers a ‘magical number 7’ (plus or minus 2). It claims that adults can generally process 7 elements (letters, words, digits etc.)
There are immediate best practice solutions to improve the time and effort spent on completing tasks but do they apply to all users? Are there exceptions where more information and more clicks are better? Facebook for example actively slows down the results when users run the Facebook security checkup app to make the results appear more thorough. It would feel like asking a shop assistant if they have another size and being told immediately ‘No’, while they may be totally right, as a customer you want to feel like some kind of check has been done.
The newly popular term of ‘positive friction’ indicates that not all frictions are bad and not all are avoidable. Considering that the aim is to successfully complete a task in a flawless manner while creating a positive experience, a straight, frictionless way may not always be the best solution. Here are some examples of helpful distractions:
Safety and prevention
Avoiding mistakes is only possible if they are identified in time. It is the service providers’ responsibility to require knowledge of existing issues. Differently from most cases, reducing friction will not be the solution, as the cause is not surplus but rather the, lack of information.
Generally, the older generation needs some additional help to complete a task but it does not harm the younger generation either. While they may have to click an extra button, they do get reassurance from having a task completed.
The argument is that adding more information/ elements, adds time and clicks to the process but on the other hand it adds clarity and provides guidance. Although it adds difficulty to an action it therefore also prevents a mistake.
Issues not considered
The easiest would be to mention Amazon’s 1-click purchase process and impulse buying but it’s not this simple. There are concerning issues that a smart friction can actively address and potentially change.
There is no positive friction article without mentioning Monzo. If you have not heard about it yet, Monzo is a not so typical banking app. Monzo got its friction fame from addressing a mental health issue of excessive spending.
If you ever get into the situation when after the same night when you enjoyed Amazon’s 1-click and accidentally spent over £300, Monzo will let you know the next morning that this does appear to be unnecessary late night spend and you may be able to recover some. But first you have to suffer from a notification (friction) that you don’t want to see.
With the technology and data already available, it doesn’t take much effort to decrease information needed from users but as it appears users like to think that they are in control.
Insurance is generally an area where users are happier to provide more information, hoping that it will affect the price they will have to pay.
Typically health insurance is where users have invested time and effort to have good results and they want to mention it and be rewarded for it. It means additional questions that the provider does not need answers for.
These were the good ones but when talking about frictions, these remain unforgivable:
Having clutter, chaos and unnecessary information are good examples of what not to do. Excessive information will not just slow down the process of achieving their aims but there is also a chance of abandonment.
The assumption is that users don’t read, they are task focussed, they lose focus at the earliest obstruction but they demand information to be available.
What can a financial/any service provider do when they believe that all the information present on the page is required and useful?
- Listen to the user
- Organise, correct IA
Too many options to choose from
In the same way as it is with the information, users want information but they have to receive them well - constructed, demanding the least effort from them to process. Providing them too many options causes confusion, overloads the brain and makes it difficult to make a decision.
As much is it a problem to provide too much information, it is just as big of a problem to provide too little. Simplifying the content has been nominated to be one of the most important actions to aid users. This along with click counting allows a well-reviewed product that provides enough information and requires little processing. However, click counts are not always an accurate measure of success. The design has to consider prevention of errors and recovery. In some cases adding an extra click means reassurance and less thinking for the user.
Having repetitive content is a waste of effort to process. Making complex information to breakthrough resistance is better done in pieces. Chunks are much easier to recognise and process.
Users have to be guided through the site and they need a helping hand on any occasion when they get lost. The best part of this is that we can create a personal tour guide by providing clear, consistent signs that they can follow and rely on. What makes anything on the Internet reliable? Having a clear, consistent pattern creates familiarity whereas the continuous positive experience creates the quality of trustworthiness. Inconsistency Not following a clear pattern causes distraction and requires mental processing and learning. The already existing visual cues are not just encouraged but have to be used. Users already have knowledge of the cues and find it easier to recognise and understand if it has been used before.
How your "working memory" makes sense of the world (Online) Peter Doolittle
The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information (PDF)
George A. Miller Monzo - Designing a product with mental health issues in mind (Online) Zander Brade