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Mobile Marketing

App UX Design: Avoid Draining a Customer’s Cognitive Resources

Ashley Sefferman  //  April 6, 2016  //  4 min read

Dan Gilbert, psychologist and author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, gave a Ted Talk back in 2004 about the surprising effects our brain has on the way we experience happiness. One of his most interesting conclusions was, “Freedom to choose, to change, and make up your mind, is the enemy of synthetic happiness.”

That’s right. Being given a nice, big array of choices can actually hinder one’s perceived happiness. This phenomenon has big implications for user experience in app design. As many of the best UX design portfolios will show you, one of the key features of good UX design is guiding the user’s pathway through a site in a manner that is intuitive and simple.

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This notion of simpler-is-better has its roots in human psychology, which suggests that brain function acts somewhat like a battery, full of cognitive resources that get drained when the brain has to make too many choices or exercise a certain level of willpower or self-control. In terms of UX design principles, this means that it’s best to design a site with as few cognitive barriers and as little stress on cognitive load as possible.

The understanding of a user’s cognitive resources is very important for app design, especially now that people are using their phones increasingly more than their computers. It may not be long before the app and mobile site become the dominant format format interaction with users. So with Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think as a touchstone, let’s look at a few key Do’s and Don’ts of UX design that will assure that your app doesn’t drain your customer’s cognitive resources.

DO Keep Customers Moving

While you don’t necessarily want to overload your customers with too many choices to pick from, they do still like having the illusion that they are making choices to navigate their way through your app. For your app, this means that you should not keep your users stuck on one page. Keep them moving.

Continuous movement is especially important for app design, where so much movement within an app is dependent upon scrolling. The key here is to make sure the app navigation experience feels natural, which brings us to our next point…

DO Rely On Familiar Patterns

One of Krug’s main points throughout Don’t Make Me Think is, perhaps obviously, not to make users’ expend too much of their cognitive resources when browsing your app. The key, then, is to identify familiar patterns in many popular apps, or at least within certain app genres, and implement those within your own app.

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Allowing for familiar patterns, even functions you might take for granted (such as putting the forward or “continue” button on the right, and the backward or “decline” button on the left) means your customers don’t have to expend energy by making choices regarding how to navigate through your app. Giving them familiar routes will also make it easier for you to manipulate navigation to maximize their experience on your site.

DO Guide Customer Paths

We’ve established customers still like the ability to move about within your app, as long as it’s in a familiar space. It gives them the sense that they’re doing their own exploration and research. But, one of Steve Krug’s first maxims in Don’t Make Me Think is this: “As a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over things. They enjoy puzzles in their place—when they want to be entertained or diverted or challenged—but not when they’re trying to find out what time their dry cleaner closes.”

While giving users the freedom to move around is important, what’s more important is guiding their path so that their navigation leads them to the desired answer or destination without expending too many cognitive resources. There are all sorts of design hierarchy practices to guide your users in the appropriate, non-intrusive way. The key there, though, is staying non-intrusive.

DON’T Get In Their Way

People’s’ brains all work very similarly. That is, the human brain processes information in a specific way and detects patterns based on what it expects from the information it’s given. This means that, despite their perceived freedom and movement throughout the app, a user will only stick with you as long as their expectations of the app experience are not interrupted. Users like their experiences to be clear and digestible. This means not getting in their way with things like popups while they browse your app.

DON’T Frustrate Their Backtracking

Ideally, your app would be perfectly navigable by all customers, who flow seamlessly from page to page without expending any cognitive resources. Unfortunately, though, the back button is still the most-used feature of all web browsers, and a similar phenomenon is true for apps.

Good guided browsing allows for the possibility of moving backwards with ease, whether that’s simple breadcrumb navigation or a swipe feature between pages. The natural flow of your app should be such that your customer knows where they are within the framework of the whole app without having to spend too much energy figuring out how to get back to square one.

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Above all, a good app should explain itself. Using simple hierarchical design steps and simple, guided navigation will go a long way in aiding your app’s user experience.

Just think: Does it make sense to me? If so, you’re off to a good start.

About Ashley Sefferman

Ashley Sefferman is Head of Content at Apptentive. A digital communication and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about multichannel engagement strategies, customer communication, and making the digital world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashseff.
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