Limit Your Concepts

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Can you point me to the closest dog park? How about the local maternity store? A hearing aid expert I can see this week? Best spot for fresh sushi?

You likely can answer some of the above from memory, but make no mistake, each has an answer. Our ability to answer says a lot about who we are and what we care about at this time in our life. We have to prioritize what we store in between our ears and it’s no different for your product.

People’s willingness (ie. ability & motivation) to learn about your product is constrained and varies considerably. If you’re learning your parent’s medication schedule, I’d hope you’d focus diligently on every detail. Just trying to get the car wash machine at the gas station to accept your 5 digit code? Not so much. Customers have a finite budget for the mental energy they are willing to spend on your product — don’t squander it.

As builders, we should assume everyone is like us — busy and lazy. Here is the unspoken contract — you won’t get your user’s full attention, and they won’t dutifully learn the nuances of your product. Expect the least and plan accordingly.

One of the best ways to avoid wasting their budgeted attention is by following convention. If there is already an established pattern for doing something, follow it. Unless you really, really have something special, don’t reinvent the search icon or move settings away from the user’s profile. You want your product to be special, but not in every way.

“One problem with conventions, though: Designers are often reluctant to take advantage of them. Faced with the prospect of following a convention, there’s a great temptation for designers to try reinventing the wheel instead, largely because they feel (not incorrectly) that they’ve been hired to do something new and different, not the same old thing. Not to mention the fact that praise from peers, awards, and high-profile job offers are rarely based on criteria like “best use of conventions.” — Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think

We don’t want to spend our user’s attention by breaking established patterns, but there is another potentially dangerous pattern — introducing new concepts. Each new concept has a real cost to the experiencer but feels free to the creator. How does this mismatch happen?

In the process of building, you’ll have a real need to name things. Often the motivation isn’t a selfish desire to feel special, but simple communication. The team needs to know what they are talking about and unique names are a useful tool. No problem with that, but be careful not to expose too many of these ‘unique names’ to the user. Did Apple help user’s when they called playlists ‘smart playlists’? Would Google+ have done better with ‘circles’ or groups?

“You only have a limited number concepts you can introduce.” — Geoff Schmidt at Meteor DevShop [1]

Carefully guard against new concepts inside your product. Users need a stable footing — a foundation from which to explore. If everything is new and unique, it can feel unsettling or overwhelming — aka hard to use. The flip side is that you might actually need a few new concepts. Great, just be considered in what you add and respect the very real, but invisible budget you’ve been allocated. Your users (and your business) will thank you.

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  1. Geoff mentioned this at one of the early Meteor DevShops in San Francisco. I can’t recall which one, but the sentiment of the quote is on target. If anyone has the video, I’d love to find it again to quote him accurately.



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