Too Much Clutter?

A few years ago I worked on an enhancement for a “quick order” feature where a user would enter a product number, hit enter and the item would be added to the cart. It was enhanced at some point with a typeahead-style look up feature–as the customer entered the number, a drop down would appear offering suggestions of the product they were typing.

It was tuned for speed and very accurate, and it drastically decreased the number of customers using the quick order feature.

Our hubris made us think we could add this feature without checking with customers, but the results forced our hand. After just a single review the problem was clear: these customers knew their product numbers by heart. As they began typing the number, they were distracted by the dropdown and felt compelled to leave the keyboard and click the right product in the list. They lost the perception of speed and the quick order feature lost it’s allure.

We took a very simple and targetted workflow, added a great new capability and ruined a feature.

In hindsight it seems obvious (it was not at the time)–we added distraction, increased cognitive load and potential for error–and it’s informed how I feel about what might be my most hated phrase of all time:

But what if they want to…?

It’s not an entirely unfair question–we want to make sure we’re addressing the needs of our customers–but it’s a question without end. There’s always something else a customer might potentially want. Maybe pink kittens galloping across the screen. Or, maybe something that seems like a very useful enhancement.

There are plenty of tools to help maintain focus and vision (personas, storyboards and the like), but in my experience those tend to break down once the boots are on the ground coding the interface. If there’s one thing I wish all product managers understood it’s that no interface element comes for free. From the lips of Jakob Nielsen:

The problem is that every extra design element detracts from all the other design elements on the page. When you push irrelevant links at people, you teach them to ignore the ones that matter.

There’s been a lot of talk about “simple” interfaces, but simplicity shouldn’t be the goal. Focus should be our aim, and we accomplish that by questioning both the value and the negatives of everything we put in front of customers.

Twitter LinkedIn