Cognitive Overhead, Or Why Your Product Isn’t As Simple As You Think. Simplicity” comes in many flavours. We can make products simpler by optimising along a number of vectors… But the most important, and often most overlooked, is Cognitive Simplicity. by David Lieb
I hadn’t heard of the framing of “cognitive overhead” to describe products before, but after reading this piece it was the only way I could think about simplicity moving forward. As Lieb so succinctly describes, simplicity isn’t about number of steps or time spent or amount of pixels on screen—it’s about whether a product or feature can be easily explained, easily taught, and easily spread because it’s easy to grok.
I’d actually put Dropbox in the bucket of cognitively simple, because it uses the metaphor of a folder which is pretty well-understood to the folks who care the most about syncing files across multiple devices. Generally, things that claim magic tend to be cognitively simple to grasp. Shazam is one example that Lieb used, and Apple’s fingerprint sensor also falls into this category. (Although, of course, this assume that the magic works and is reliable.)
Conversely, conversations about platforms, APIs or services can often feel cognitively complex. One needs to make many mental leaps to understand the benefits and promises of a platform. (When we were in middle school, my best friend would always tell me that her MacOS was better than my Windows, and that I should switch. But when pressed to explain why it was better, she had little to say beyond that it showed a happy, smiling computer upon startup.) Products or services that grow too many features also take on cognitive complexity. It’s part of the reason why we invested in makingMessenger a standalone app from Facebook, with its own distinct look and feel—because people understand messaging with their friends and using Facebook to be distinct activities. The true power is the story or narrative that connects so deeply it delivers its listeners a new framework with which to approach their own life. This year, the five articles above have shaped my thinking on how I’ve approached my work, my relationships, and my outlook.
Give them a read. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find them useful too.