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The Best Design is Opinionated and Has Low Cognitive Load

The best software has a vision. The best software takes sides. When someone uses software, they’re not just looking for features, they’re looking for an approach. They’re looking for a vision. Decide what your vision is and run with it.

– Jason Fried, Founder of 37signals, Getting Real

It’s not a novel idea that simplicity of product is incredibly important to crafting a compelling user experience. My partner Andy talks about getting that one thing right.

However, for many products, this message seems to be lost in translation. There is a gap between the idea of simplicity and actual execution of simplicity.

I had a call with a founder last week who said all the right things:

"We think about user experience constantly… We want to make the product as simple as possible… I want to emphasize this is our minimum viable product…"

Unfortunately, the product was anything but that. It was so complex and overthought that my brain shut down, a victim of cognitive overload.

Cognitive load is how mentally taxing a task is on a finite reservoir of decision making power. John Tierney in The New York Times Magazine described the result of high cognitive load as decision fatigue.

Typically, high cognitive load happens when your brain tries to store too many things at once in its short-term memory. (Similarly, our computers also have a finite amount of memory / RAM before it crunches to a halt and starts utilizing swap space.)

What’s happening when your brain is faced with too many options is the Paradox of Choice, that when presented with too many choices actually counterintuitively creates anxiety. In fact, Hick’s Law says that the time it takes to make a decision increases logarithmically as the number of choices increases.

So, have an opinion and do one thing really well. Chances are, your opinion will be wrong. But at least you will know exactly why your opinion is wrong, because you’ve only tried one thing.1

Consider the alternative. You lack an opinion and try to do many things at once. The end result is the same, a lukewarm response. Except in this case, you have no idea why your opinion is wrong.2

Remember: more is less, and less is more.

  1. Think Scientific Method: what you control is more important than having many independent variables. 

  2. Here, you have many independent variables and few controls, so it is difficult to isolate the cause and effect relationship between your product decisions and the end result.