Challenge your assumptions. Nothing is obvious to a complete stranger.
“I knew exactly what to do. It was obvious.” Is that ever music to a web designer’s ears! It means they crushed it when it comes to the user experience (UI) on the website. If the UI does what it’s supposed to do, your website visitors don’t have to think, or figure out how to use it. You want that. It’s crucial because you’re trying to sell them something, and you want your product to be their focus—not the website.
This means you and your website designer have hundreds of important design decisions to make. Each one has the objective of creating a direct path to closing the sale by removing—well, thinking.
No thinking. If thinking, think nothing
If you create confusion with your user interface and navigation, your website visitors have two choices:
- Give up and leave (many will)
- Make their own solutions, creating even more problems
Your website should encourage people to put the result of using your product into their worldview—which means they’re looking at their screen but also imagining living with or using your solution. The last thing you want to do is kick them back into the reality that they’re staring at a phone screen or computer monitor. That’s too much thinking.
It’s the scientific term for excessive thinking. You don’t want it applied to your website.
The human brain—our biological computing device—works much the way computers do. We’ve only got so much thinking capacity, the same way that computers have a finite amount of working memory. When a computer gets more data than its capacity, it slows down. When our brains get more information than we can process, we get frustrated. Or, we start making poor decisions.
Websites have to prevent cognitive overload if they want users to enjoy the experience and actually accomplish what they came to do. It sounds strange, but the most important thing the design and UI must accomplish is to help people not think too much.
No-brainer web design
The science behind the design objectives that prevent cognitive overload is enough to fill a book. If you want a deep dive into it, grab a copy of Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think. And don’t freak out when you see it was first published in 2000.
These rules of design have nothing to do with what’s currently trending. They are basic rules that will never be outdated. From a design standpoint:
- Every page of your website should be self-explanatory. After all, you can’t guarantee a visitor started at your homepage.
- Don’t apply the best solution for interactivity or navigation. Users want the easiest.
- It’s said that a shark has to keep moving or it will die. Consider your website viewers to be like sharks. They don’t want to stop. So keep them moving.
- You can decide on whatever you want for navigation. Your visitors will still decide that the back button is their favorite way to get around. Guess who wins?
- So what if nobody actually ever uses the home icon in the upper-left corner of the screen? Remove it at your own peril. It gives your users an important sense of reassurance.
Each time a user has to stop and think about what to do, you’ve bogged down their working memory. The largest contributor to cognitive overload is the dangerous assumption you make when you decide, “This is obvious. People will know what to do.”
How to avoid dangerous assumptions that lead to cognitive overload
Strip out every unnecessary action. You want speed and pacing. But, guess what? Visitors also want to know what they’re getting themselves into before they commit. So if you want them to give their first name and their email address in a form, you must make sure those fields are labeled with what goes in them. It is not obvious to someone who has never been to your website.
Don’t over stimulate their senses. Animation, blinking text, video that auto-starts, and anything else you might think is an attention-getter is more likely a distraction. Use a fair balance of text and graphics. Too much of either can over-stimulate a user and send them packing. Symmetry is your friend. Use it to guide users from one logical step to the next.
Beware of too many options. Website visitors want the fastest route to a solution, and you’re not providing that by allowing them to choose the path themselves. If you ask them to make too many decisions, they’ll get what’s known as decision paralysis. It’s also known as Hick’s Law, named after the behavioral scientist who came up with it in the 1950s. They’ll get lost exploring options. You’ll lose the sale.
Avoid ambiguity. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Are those icons on your website really substitutes, or confusion bombs? Thankfully, the profusion of mobile devices has bestowed a universal identity to a large collection of icons. Use the familiar ones your viewers know—even if it doesn’t match your design.
Just because it makes sense to you…
Cognitive overload isn’t a constant. It takes a lot for some people to reach that state, and it can happen to others after a mere glance at your website homepage. The best way to ensure that people know what to do when they get to your website is to challenge your assumptions about the website’s usability.
Find people who know absolutely nothing about your business, and who have never been to your website. Watch them as they experience the website. Ask them what they like and hate. Find out what made them pause. See your website through the eyes of these total strangers.
Your content should follow these guidelines, too. Every article in your blog should have the underlying objective of helping a reader understand who you are and what you do—just in case they’ve never heard of you before.