Make the Complex Simpler, Part II – Removing Obstacles to Action

3 May

Bump’s CEO explains Cognitive Overhead: why we expect too much from our audiences, and how to fix the problem.

cognitive overhead

This is Part II in a series on “Making the Complex Simpler,” whose inspiration came after I was asked to help students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business prepare for their final presentations/pitches to VCs.  Part I is here.

This post owes a lot to David Lieb, CEO of Bump, and his brilliant article about Cognitive Overhead.  I want to summarize and then adapt his thinking in terms of strategic communications.  David’s perspective is invaluable to anyone designing a consumer internet product, or for that matter any product or process designed for large numbers of users.  But it has clear application to effectively communicating messages, especially when the goal is to produce a specific action from the target audience.

David’s message, in short: eliminate all unnecessary user thinking.  Do as much thinking for the user as possible.

Sounds obvious? Achieving that result can be surprisingly complicated and counter-intuitive.

What Is Cognitive Overhead?

Remember Amazon’s PayPhrase payment option (see image below)?  Amazon thought it would be a good way to eliminate a couple of steps during the checkout process, and make things simpler.  You could type a personalized PayPhrase on any Amazon product page, and skip the checkout process altogether – the product would be ordered based on a specific payment method and delivery address you’d previously specified.  The thinking was that this would significantly streamline checkout.

amazon payphrase

But I remember looking at it, and wondering: what is this and what do I need to?  Sure, I could have figured it out.  But that’s the point – I had to figure it out.  And I never did.  And apparently, nor did many other users, which is why Amazon canned PayPhrases last year.

That’s exactly what “Cognitive Overhead” is.  “Cognitive Overhead” refers to all the leaps or thinking required for a user to take a desired outcome.  The more steps a user has to take while engaging with a product, or the harder it is for a user to figure something out during the process, the less likely the user is to take the desired action.  And when you have thousands or millions of users, Cognitive Overhead can have big costs.

Amazon’s Cognitive Overhead for PayPhrase was actually highlighted by the “What’s this?” box.  Amazon was subconsciously telling users “you don’t know what this is, and you’re going to have to learn how to use it.”  In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Amazon created a ton of Cognitive Overhead and the product didn’t work out the way Amazon expected.

How to Get to Cognitive Simplicity

David doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to overcoming Cognitive Overhead.  That’s not surprising – if there was an obvious answer, there wouldn’t be any overhead in the first place.   But his suggestions are surprising, because many of them are diametrically opposite to what you’d expect.

  1. “Make People Work More Not Less.”  This is a brilliant insight.  If you force users to take a simple additional step like pressing a button, they become more engaged. If they’re more engaged, they’re thinking more, and less likely to get confused or left behind.  With David’s own app, Bump, users have to physically touch their phones to exchange their contact information.  Of course, there’s a delicate balance in getting the right amount of involvement, but the big picture message is that automation is not the be-all and end-all.
  2. Give users positive feedback.  This one is pretty straightforward.  Let the user know they successfully completed the task.  Slot machines in casinos don’t need to make those electronic gaming noises when you pull down on the handle to play the game, but the mere act of spinning the wheels generates excitement and itself becomes a small reward (as opposed to winning).
  3. Slow your process down.   Another great insight.  Sometimes speed is everything.  If Google took 5 seconds to return search results, but Bing took 0.001 second, Google would be out of business.  But for tasks that we do less frequently, slowing the process down can be beneficial.  David points to academic studies showing that “slowing down results on travel search websites can actually increase perceived user value” because it creates the perception that the service is doing hard number crunching.  I must admit to having the same reaction when using SoundHound or Shazam, where the whole process can take 10-20 seconds to identify a song (that may actually be a case where it literally takes that long though).
  4. Test your product on the old, the young and the drunk (!).  People who are cognitively impaired or undeveloped can help you identify leaps you’ve made, that are not necessarily obvious to everyone else.
  5. Ask users to verbalize what your product does and the process.  Another good one.  Sometimes when users explain things in their own words, it can cast your product and processes in a different light to how the core team is looking at it.

There are probably plenty more strategies like this, and I don’t consider this list comprehensive by any means.

But understanding Cognitive Overhead is as vitally important for effective communications as it is for the actual products, services or ideas being marketed.   If you have spent hundreds of hours on a project, it is nearly impossible to eliminate all of your cognitive leaps and assumptions because you are so absorbed in the work.

Take email (which is generally a terrible marketing tool, by the way).  If you ask someone “why are you writing this email” they will tell you “because I want [audience] to do [specified action].”  But then when they sit down to write the email, how do they start it?  “Dear Joe, How are you?…”  And they end up writing a letter, or extended essay.  But that ends up diluting or confusing the “ask” – the single action you want the recipient to take.

Surely, it makes more sense to start by writing down the “ask”, and then thinking about what minimal amount of information the recipient needs in order to get from their current state of inaction to the point of action.  That process forces you to place yourself in the other person’s shoes, and figure out what connections or leaps you need to be make induce them to act.  In particular, figuring out how to get someone involved or actively engaged (David’s point #1 above) is likely the most important point – but is notoriously difficult to do with email.

I’m going to write a ton more about this, because it really is vital to effective strategic communications.  It’s crucial to think about Cognitive Overhead and what mental obstacles stand in the way of getting your audience from inaction to action.


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