Tag Archives: making things simpler

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.

Make the Complex Simpler, Part I – Storytelling

7 Mar

Whether selling wine or pitching a cow poop startup, audiences are more receptive to internalizing new ideas when the speaker begins with a story.


I was asked last week to help several groups of students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business prepare for their final presentations/pitches to VCs, as part of the Ignite program.  These students were terrifically talented, but their ability to convey their ideas was still very raw.  I got very confused listening to pitches ranging from molecular diagnostics to monetizing agricultural waste (aka cow poop).

It’s inspired me to put together a series of posts about taking complicated ideas and creating simple, digestible messages that others can understand.

The ability to convey information succinctly and effectively is one of the most difficult but important skills to master.  In my careers as a trial lawyer and a startup CEO, I’ve found it vital to improve myself continually in this regard.   One of the best ways to make the complex simpler is through stories.  This post is somewhat geared towards presentations but, as the next story reveals, is applicable to many different forms of communicating ideas.  


The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article about how storytelling was changing the wine industry.

“There’s a rising generation of consumers, part of the Millennial surge, who are compelled by a wine’s story, not its score.”  No more floral bouquets, or tasting notes with hints of oak and vanilla.  Instead, the new generations of wine drinkers want to know the winemakers, the vineyards, and “a winemaker’s ethical and technical decisions.”  The article suggested that both wineries and wine critics should take notice of this change in consumer demand and adapt accordingly. 

Telling stories is as vital for startups and scientists as it is for established businesses.  Psychologists have studied the powerful effect storytelling has on the brain.  In short, we listen to stories on a deeper, more emotional level than many other types of information.  We relate much more easily to human stories – they absorb us and become embedded within us on a level that cold facts and data do not.  It’s no coincidence that most religious texts take the form of stories, political candidates hawk their autobiographies, and parents teach children with stories.   Storytelling simplifies and humanizes otherwise difficult, abstract concepts. 

Direct Benefits of Storytelling

When communicating an idea that is unfamiliar to the audience, telling a story is almost always the most effective way to begin.  There are a number of direct reasons why this is so:

  • Focuses on what’s most important. Telling a story forces the speaker to identify the most signficant pieces of information upfront.  I recently heard a pitch for an iPhone app for restaurants.  The presenter started with a story about a restaurant owner and customer, which cut right to the chase about the problem owners face and the potential solution.  It didn’t cover every detail, every use case, or all the intricacies of creating a platform to maximize restaurant revenue and assist consumer menu choices, but it didn’t need to.  It was instantly understandable and allowed the listener to quickly drill down on the most important parts of the business model.
  • Discards irrelevant/complicating information.  When you work on a project all day, every day, you get bogged down in details.  I’ve seen many presentations that start off on the wrong note, because the speakers can’t separate the tiny details currently in their minds from the big picture.  Starting with a story forces you to discard that distracting minutiae.
  • Helps the audience relate.  Everyone is human.  Not only are stories effective for sharing ideas, they also unconsciously signal to the other person that there’s another human being behind this business, project, or idea.  Never underestimate the importance of this.

Other important reasons to begin with a story

In addition to those direct reasons, there are several more subtle reasons for telling a story, especially in the context of beginning a presentation, or pitch, when the speaker and audience are not well acquainted. 

  • It’s easier for you.  People naturally get nervous when they begin a presentation.  Telling stories does not require the same precise language as some of the more detailed concepts that will follow.  Starting with a story allows the speaker to get comfortable with the audience and settle down before getting into the nitty gritty.
  • Your audience needs to get used to you.   I recently presented my medical startup to a group of 20 angel investors in the midwest.  I have a mutt of an accent, having lived half my life in England and half on the West Coast. I lead off the pitch with a story about my dentist.  It honestly wasn’t my best delivery and the story ran a bit long.  But by the end of my story, the audience was used to a half-Limey with a weird accent and was fully absorbed (and told us afterwards they wanted to proceed with us).  Telling a story upfront allows the audience to “settle in” and get used to your individual characteristics (voice, haircut, mismatched socks) by the time you get to the meat and potatoes of your presentation.
  • People pay attention to different things.  I’ve always been amazed at the questions I get after presentations.  I often have to bite my tongue when my instinct is to say “were ya listening at all?”  The truth is, people listen in different ways, and listen for different things.  Some fully engage and “get” everything.  Others are still thinking about their previous meeting, what they said on last night’s first date, or how long it is until dinner.  When talking to any sort of group, the goal is to capture as many people as possible, and explaining ideas in different ways and at different levels of abstraction can help achieve that goal.  Someone only half-listening will be able to follow a story much better than a complex scientific explanation.  

What the Story Should and Should Not Capture

The story should be short, simple, and very high level.  Describe your business or idea in one sentence.  And then build a story around that and that alone. In the iPhone app example above, the story involved the restaurant owner and a customer who walked into the restaurant.  The speaker even gave them names.  (Not necessary, but sometimes useful).  The story provided a single use case.  In other words, only one example.

Personal stories are the best, because they introduce you as well as the idea you are conveying.  But only tell personal stories if they’re authentic and believable.  Don’t make up a story about you if it’s not plausibly true.   

And finally, stories don’t need to capture every nuance.  They likely would not hold up to scientific scrutiny and they’re not always 100% perfect analogies.  They don’t need to be – they’re just stories meant to introduce the subject to people unfamiliar with it.   Don’t over-think things, but do try to capture the essence of the idea with your story.

You’ve made it to the end of this long post.  If you made it this far…

… it was probably in part because of the stories.  By my count, there were 7 or 8 stories and personal tidbits.  I tried to start with a story, introduce different sections with stories, and throw in some anecdotes when things started getting dry.  If you got this far, it hopefully shows that storytelling really does work!

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