Make Me Think, Or Else

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice “don’t make me think” in regards to website usability. It’s the idea that visitors of a site can use the site with as little cognitive strain as possible. Is it good advice? Well…yes, but there are times when making people think a little more might be the better option.

About a month ago Jeremy Keith suggested there are some dangers hidden in “don’t make me think.” He was addressing Google’s decision to remove the full URL from the address bar. Mark Boulton followed up in agreement. Jeremy’s article raises an interesting question.

Is “don’t make me think” leading us to a horrific ending?

A futuristic city in ruin

Our Dystopian, Non-Thinking Future

Jeremy’s article begins with a quote from Ray Bradbury, who said “The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.”

Jeremy points out how science fiction worlds are typically set in dystopias as opposed to utopias. The former ads much more dramatic possibilities to the story. Dystopias have conflict built in and conflict is a necessary part of drama.

Jeremy specifically uses Wall-E as an example. In the story all humanity’s needs are provided for. There’s no need for thought because there’s nothing to want for. It’s literally a case of “don’t make me think” and as a result humanity atrophies. We become “physically obese and intellectually lazy,” as Jeremy says.

Aside from making me want to reread some of my favorite science fiction stories, Jeremy makes a great point. It’s one I touch on whenever I talk about the conflict between creativity and productivity. Sometimes slower is better. Sometimes it’s good to think and struggle and put in the extra effort required.

Designers push the idea of thinking for visitors to save them from having to think about what to do next. I just finished a series here on visual perception where the key takeaway from the series was to reduce cognitive load where possible and offload thinking from the viewer to the design.

I remember a short story I read back in high school. For the life of me I can never remember the author. I want to say it’s Robert Heinlein, but that’s just a guess. If you recognize it, please let me know the title and author.

In the story society has advanced to the point where machines exist to take care of everything. The machines even build more machines to replace themselves. One day something happens to the power supply of the planet and nothing works. The people of the world are immediately plunged back to the stone age. Their reliance on machines has left them unable to get the power working again, rendering all the advanced machinery useless.

Isn’t this where we seem to be headed? More and more technology does the work we used to do and makes the work we do even easier. Look around you. Do people seem to be getting lazier? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Please don’t take any of this as doomsaying or a suggestion we should slow down on the progress. I’m a big fan of progress and new technology that makes our lives better. Just think how people lived 1,000 years ago or even 100 years ago. Would you want to live your life the way they lived theirs? Probably not. Your life is no doubt easier today and it stands to reason in a hundred or a thousand years people will say the same about us.

It does make you wonder though about the potential dangers of making things too easy. Should we really help people to stop thinking or should we encourage them to think more?

Thinking Is Good

If you’ve read here for any length of time, I hope you know I’m a fan of thinking. I try to encourage everyone to think for themselves and make their own decisions. As much as I like productivity and automating what can be automated, I think it’s important to meander unexplored and untrodden paths.

Don’t require me to think. Do encourage me to think.

I routinely argue in favor of decision-making, critical thinking, creativity, both objectivity and subjectivity, and a focus on fundamental design principles, because they improve thinking and deciding.

The point of this blog is to allow me to share what I learn about design and hopefully make you spend time thinking about what I’m sharing. Hopefully you can take what I’ve learned and incorporate it into what you’ve learned. Ideally you’ll then share your ideas with others. Our combined knowledge, thinking, and perspective offers more than any alone.

And yet when designing an interface I always try to make it easier for people to use and do what I can to make them think less. What’s going on? Am I operating under a contradiction?

How Do We Encourage More Thinking?

Each of us is responsible for our own lives. Even if everything around you is helping you not to think, you still have it within you to continue thinking. Ultimately it’s on you to exercise your thinking muscles.

If you’ve read more than a few posts here I assume you want more than what’s on the surface. You’re looking for something deeper that does make you think instead of something that offers X ways to do Y.

If I’m wrong please let me know. It would be much easier and quicker to write generic top 10 posts. Their titles are great at attracting attention. If only their authors put more time into making what comes after the title useful. If only we demanded that they do.

My not so subtle point is that if we want to think more, we should seek out that which makes us think more. If you want more in-depth content don’t reward thin top 10 like articles. Reward those authors who look deeper than the surface. Tweet their content. Like it. Share it.

At some point we’ll complain about how little information out there is truly useful. We’ll do it in the same way we criticize politicians for never getting anything done. The thing is it’ll be our own fault for continuing to reward the content that doesn’t make us think and ignoring that which does.

Progressive Disclosure

None of this should be taken as me suggesting you ignore the “don’t make me think” advice. I still think it’s great advice and one of the more important goals every web designer should strive to acheive.

However, we need to understand the advice and where it best applies. Making it easy for someone to use your design, doesn’t prohibit you from also giving them the ability to think and do more.

“Don’t make me think” is the default setting. It’s the initial experience to help people orient themselves quickly and reduce any confusion they might have. It’s helping people who don’t yet have any experience with our site. It helps them use the site without the need for instruction.

Many will never want more. They’ll happily use your site without thinking too much beyond how easy it is to use. There will also be those want to know how to use your system more efficiently. They’ll seek to bump up against the limits of what your design can do and try to push it as far as it can go.

These people want to think. Let them. Show them. Teach them how they can do more. Provide additional layers of information, functionality, and proficiency. You don’t even need to present these things in an in-your-face manner.

These are people who want to do more. They’ll click and seek links in search of information. They’ll open preference settings just to see what they can do. You can provide the opportunity for more without hitting them over the head with it.

A simple link for more, a page of keyboard shortcuts, a listing of search features that can be used to filter content. Any of these things can provide more for those who want to think.

We don’t have to present every choice everywhere. That isn’t going to lead people to greater thinking. It’ll only lead them to more confusion. What we can do is follow the principle of progressive disclosure.

Make it as easy as possible for people to use your design, but also make it easy to discover more. Hide the advanced features, but don’t hide the path to those features. You don’t have to force people to think in order to use your design, but don’t prevent them from thinking either. Encourage them to think while letting them know you’re there when they need or want more.

Don’t require that I think, but do promote the option.

Lost URLs

Jeremy’s article was inspired by recent changes in Google’s Chrome browser that remove the complete URL from the address bar. I’ve noticed recent versions of Firefox have stopped showing page titles at the top of the browser window and it looks like Safari will be following Chrome in hiding URL information.

I agree with Jeremy. These changes take something away that’s important. It’s true most people don’t need to see the complete URL or page title, but there are those who do want them. There’s a lot of useful information in a complete URL or page title. Some who don’t need the information might have noticed it and become curious. Some would follow their curiosity, think, and learn more.

Jeremy also notes how much harder it is to view the source code of a web page without using specific developer tools. You and I already use those tools and so this might not seem like a huge loss, but I remember how I started learning to develop websites. I started by going to the menu bar and clicking view source on every web page I found interesting.

How many people won’t become web developers because they never get to take this step. Will non-developers know about and turn on developer tools? Will they be curious about what those tools can do without first having viewed the source a time or two.

Summary

The advice “don’t make me think” is good advice. People new to your design shouldn’t be left confused about what to do or where to find something. Make it easy for new visitors to use your site. That means their reducing cognitive load and doing some of the thinking for them.

At the same time allow and encourage visitors to think and do more. Don’t remove that ability. Don’t require it, but don’t prohibit it either.

Recent changes in how browsers hide URL information and how they make it more difficult to view source code are disconcerting. I suspect business agendas are behind the changes and I suspect the people who want complete URLs and source code will quickly figure out how to get both.

It’s discouraging though, that these changes don’t really make anything easier. They seem designed more to make it harder to access information that some would like to know. They make it harder to access information that might lead some to want to learn more.

Thinking is good. It’s what we humans do best. It’s what differentiates us from the majority of life on the planet. It’s in our best interest as a species to get everyone thinking more.

Don’t require me to think, but do encourage me to think.

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