Maker Resources

Minimalist making: how to reduce the cognitive burden on your users

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Famous Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science researcher Herb Simon once said: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”

This is true of maths as it is with making products. We usually call this the design process. Makers can use it to create a work plan through psychology, sociology, design principles, and heuristics.

Let’s have a look at two useful concepts. First, the Cognitive Burden is the total amount of mental effort that is used in our working memory. Second, the Cognitive Distribution is the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory. According to Miller’s Law, that number is 7 ± 2.

As a maker, it is important to keep this number in mind when designing products for your users. Try to minimize the cognitive burden on their working memory, so they can have more resources available when interacting with your product.

Jakob Nielsen puts it another way in his 10 general principles for interaction design: “Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.”

Mental effort is a very limited resource. So how can you make products that induce a lower cognitive load for your users?

Here are seven principles from Jon Yablonski:

  1. Avoid unnecessary elements
  2. Leverage common design patterns
  3. Eliminate unnecessary tasks
  4. Minimize choices
  5. Display choices as a group
  6. Strive for readability
  7. Use iconography with caution

In his article, he explains why these principles are essential to the process of building good products: “It is important to remember that the user has a goal, whether it is to buy a product, understand something or simply to learn more about the content. The less they have to think about what they need to do to achieve their goal, the more likely it is they will achieve it.”

Less is more

You will no doubt recognize many of these from the minimalist mindset. Applying them to your design process will allow you to make products that do not increase the cognitive burden on your users. As a maker, these principles can also help you make better, faster decisions.

Steve Jobs very famously wears the same outfit every day to lower the number of decisions he had to make in his daily routine. This was a simple yet efficient way to reduce his cognitive burden.

As an indie maker, you can also incorporate this approach into your workflow and your design process. This will make for better, simpler products.


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