The Allure of Simplicity Hints at a Cognitive Bias

Simplicity is now something we expect from design. Everything should be clear, obvious, intuitive—in other words, we should not have to think very hard.

For the most part, this is a good thing. We don’t want to have to think about every small thing everyday—like whether to push or pull a door, it should be obvious!

Making a product with a steep learning curve is a great way to discourage people. Making it intuitive allows people to free their minds to deal with more important subjects, like the weather and last nights football game.

But this need for simplicity can go too far, and in fact takes advantage of a cognitive bias that exists in all of us—thinking is painful.


Intuition runs automatically in the background of our mind, and it does so by using our experience and internal model of the world to predict the immediate future.

When you answer the phone, you expect to hear a voice. When you open the fridge, you expect to see food. When you get to work, you expect to see your workmates. You come to expect these things because past experience has shown they are reliable patterns.

If they were to be broken—if you instead heard a dog on the phone, saw a car seat in the fridge, or your extended family at work—surprise would set in. When your pattern of intuitive expectations is broken, suddenly you must think to make sense of this new world.

SurpriseWhen things happen just as we expect, we know how to respond. We feel comfortable and competent. When things go off script–especially when bad surprises attack–we feel unprepared. This feeling triggers frustration, fear, and sometimes shame. —Surprise

Our expectations play a role in everything. When you listen to music you are predicting the next note and beat, when you read a sentence you are subtly predicting the next palabra—what? That’s “word” in Spanish, but do you see what I mean?

Fluency Illusion

As long as everything goes by as planned, we don’t need to think. We can run on autopilot. The big problem, however, is that this can have us unknowingly bypassing important information.

When our environment is fluent and easy to process, we process it more shallowly. Research has determined that the ‘processing fluency’—how quickly and easily our minds can digest the information—leads us to judge that information as both beautiful and truthful.

Thinking Fast and SlowConfidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it. It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true. —Daniel Kahneman

If it doesn’t break any of our expectations, then it doesn’t make us think. Studies have shown that making text more difficult to read causes people to be more critical of the ideas that it contains.

Daniel Kahneman delves into this bias in great detail with his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He notes that people will very often go along with a gut feeling or intuitive idea, despite it being wrong, simply because it felt so good and reliable that they didn’t think to question it.

Intuition feels good. Having to think is difficult. We don’t like it.

“A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” —Daniel Kahneman

What About Design?

When something is easy for the brain to process, we perceive it as having beauty. Simplicity in this sense is an attractive quality. One recent study even found that men prefer women that have fairly simple faces.

We also judge this ease of processing to be true. Making a sentence simple, fluent, with no big words or confusing grammar, is great way to get people to trust it.

We don’t like to question our intuition, so unless we find a good reason to, we won’t.

If, however, you want people to think, if you want them to critically analyze and judge the material, then you want to introduce disfluency. You want to find a way to disrupt simplicity and break their patterns.

So much of design is about taking away the need for people to think, and instead directing their autopilot to where you want them to go. Whether that means you want them to push the door, tear a packet, or press the buy now button. To do this you need to keep your product as simple and intuitive as possible.

Of course, for those of us not designing—and for designers whom also consume—we don’t want to be manipulated. We don’t want to blindly trust something just because it seemed easy. The only way to accomplish this is to actively think about the decisions you make, question your own thoughts and gut reactions. The less easy it seems, the less likely you are to fall into the intuition trap.

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