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Last updated on 4/29/20

Don't Make me Think

Have you ever used Snapchat or Instagram Stories? Did you know how to use them the first time you opened the apps? Did you understand what all the features did and how to access them? Did someone else have to show you?

For my grandmother, who is not the target demographic, using these apps can be incredibly frustrating and requires instruction. These users often give up rather than devote a lot of brain power to something they assume has no benefit for them. In this chapter, we will explore two ways to help users feel comfortable using apps: minimizing the cognitive load and breaking past mental barriers.

Minimize the cognitive load

"Cognitive load" refers to how much brain power it takes to complete an action. The goal is to not frustrate or overwhelm users but to design processes that make sense to them, keeping mental models and context in mind as you go.

Things to consider:

  • Who is your user/customer?

  • How can you be sure visitors to your site understand your offerings if they've never heard of your brand?

  • How can you teach users how to use the product? (Not always in a direct way.)

  • How can you base what you build on something familiar? (How can you translate the physical to digital?)

  • How can you design with goals in mind?

  • How can you evolve your design over time knowing that mental models are not fixed?

  • What research do you need to conduct to better understand how users may look for information or use a product?

Imagine that you're designing an app to help students prioritize their time and minimize social media distractions. While many different people could benefit from this app, your focus is on college-age students. At first, you create clever names for the functions in your app, but then you realize you want your app to be as straightforward to users as possible as you build your user base. (In a later release you can decide if you want to add a "fun" or alternative view of the functions.) You realize your user base won't be as familiar with an analog kitchen timer, so you decide to go with something that they can better relate to - a stopped clock. But before you go too far in this direction, you mock up a quick prototype and decide to test it out on a few college students you run into at the local coffee shop. You've been watching them work for the past few months and have seen Facebook pages pop up out of the corner of your eye. A couple of the participants seem eager about this product, so you ask if you can spend some more time with them in a different context to better understand their working habits and distractions.

Research is the best way to understand your customers and design for their needs. If you're not conducting research, you're designing based on assumptions. Understanding how users approach problems or interpret certain worlds will help inform your design direction.

In understanding mental models and thought processes, you want to design experiences that are not over-complicated. Consider alternative ways you can achieve the product goals while making the experience as seamless and easy to understand for the user.

Break past mental barriers

In addition to designing a quality product, designers are also battling skepticism, laziness, and apathy of users. So how can you push past this?

Psychologist Susan Weinschenk created a list of 7 basic drivers for motivation. Knowing what motivates people makes it easier to figure out how to get them to do things.

The seven drivers are:

  • The need to belong

  • Habits

  • The power of stories

  • Carrots and sticks (which are rewards and reinforcement)

  • Instincts

  • Tricks of the mind

  • Desire for mastery

Motivation comes in the form of both extrinsic and intrinsic drivers and rewards.

Extrinsic motivation is an external motivation that drives you towards activities that lead to rewards like money, prizes, good marks, praise, discounts, badges, or status. As a student at OpenClassrooms, this could mean getting a certificate at the end of a course or a diploma at the end of the UX designer path.

An intrinsic, or inner motivation, pushes one towards activities that lead to personal fulfillment. Curiosity and the desire to learn new skills may encourage you as a student and can also be applied to other projects. Intrinsic motivation often results in a feeling of accomplishment or pride.

There is value in both external and internal motivation. Especially when a lot of time is required to complete a path, it is helpful to have rewards along the way. Intrinsic motivation tends to be more long- term, while extrinsic motivation is a short- term driver.

According to Susan Weinschenk, you ultimately want to design for intrinsic motivations as they are the best way to ensure that users will keep returning to your product. As she says, "People are very motivated to learn and master skills and knowledge." Mastery is rooted in a larger goal rather than a quick fix. It also reflects growth in the user. When you understand what motivates the user, you can guarantee that those conditions are set up to meet those desires. (We explore setting goals and measuring success in the course Manage Creative Projects.)

Motivation can also be looked at in other forms:

  • The IKEA effect is named for the fact that people give more value to things they have built themselves.

  • The endowment effect states that you value something more once you feel you own it.

  • The goal gradient effect says that your efforts increase as you move closer to a goal.

Depending on the people and the product, different motivations inspire use. Doing research and talking to users is a great place to start to assure that you're designing for their needs and motivations, rather than making assumptions.

Let's recap!

  • Cognitive load refers to how much you have to think in order to complete an action or task.

  • You do not want users to engage a lot of brain power to complete a task. Design experiences need to be intuitive.

  • Usability testing is a way to recognize mental models and understand what users are thinking by having them "think aloud."

  • Keep in mind what motivates users while designing experiences.

  • Extrinsic rewards include prizes, awards, and badges. 

  • Intrinsic rewards are ultimately what you want to design for. Intrinsic rewards are rewarding in and of themselves.


Next we’ll consider motivations in the context of behavior.

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