Satisficing

Michael Tsai:

My experience is that users don’t like to see too many options at once, but that more items on screen where one is clearly the one you want is preferable to having to go through different modes to find the desired item that’s hidden.

When navigating a user interface, most people employ a behavior psychologists call «satisficing»: they pick the first UI element they find that looks like it will bring them closer to where they want to go. I’ve written about this in my book:

A rule similar to the “the fewer clicks, the better” rule is that you must constrain the number of options given to the user; do not make her choose from more than seven options. The reason given for this idea is that humans are incapable of processing more than seven possible choices. Like the “fewer clicks” rule, this rule is wrong.

The “seven rule” originates from a paper published in 1956 by Princeton University’s cognitive psychologist George A. Miller. In the paper the author concludes that the average human can hold only about seven different objects in working memory. Although this may be true, it doesn’t apply to picking from a number of options, because you don’t have to keep all the options in working memory. You merely have to look through them and pick the first one that seems like it would bring you closer to your goal. This behavior is called satisficing, a term coined by psychologist Herbert Simon in 1956. Instead of comparing all available options in order to find the perfect choice, most people will simply pick the first option that seems sufficiently satisfying.

In The Paradox of Choice, however, Barry Schwartz notes that some people are “maximizers”—those who try to find the best possible solution, rather than the first suitable one. What’s more, although most people can cope with a large number of choices, many don’t like doing so. Schwartz writes that “a large array of options may discourage consumers because it forces an increase in the effort that goes into making a decision.”

In other words, even though most people are perfectly capable of picking from many choices, they may not like it.

A great user interface is not one where each goal can be reached with the smallest number of clicks possible, or where the user has to pick from only a small number of choices at each step, but one where each individual click is as obvious as possible. If your users have a clear goal in mind, each level of the hierarchy should have one option that clearly satisfies their goal—or at least gets them closer to that goal. As long as users feel that they are getting closer to their goal with each step, they don’t mind drilling down into a deep hierarchy.

Needless to say that, compared to previous versions, iTunes 11 is much worse for this kind of behavior. It’s much harder to find the UI element that brings you closer to where you want to go, and there are more UI layers you have to navigate through to get to your goal.

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If you liked this, you'll love my book. It's called Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web. In it, I cover the whole design process, from user research and sketching to usability tests and A/B testing. But I don't just explain techniques, I also talk about concepts like discoverability, when and how to use animations, what we can learn from video games, and much more.

You can find out more about it (and order it directly, printed or as a DRM-free ebook) on the Pragmatic Programmers website. It's been translated to Chinese and Japanese.