Wednesday, May 14, 2008

When less is more

Not my usual topic on this blog... but it's been on my mind at work.

When dealing with a User Interface sometimes less is truly more. Just because you can give your users 100 different options doesn't mean you should. Perhaps you have the ability on the back end but you don’t expose all 100 options to the user. It’s up to us as user interface designers to try to make a best guess at how many options are enough to give users some flexibility, without overwhelming them.

What prompted me to think about this recently were of all random things: my allergies. I went to the doctor about my allergies – she gave me a prescription and told me to also pick up Claritin. Simple enough I thought.

I went to my local pharmacy and attempted to pick up Claritin (which is now behind the counter and you have to provide ID to buy) and the clerk said which one? I said Claritin. She said yes- which Claritin do you want. Well I don’t know. My doctor said Claritin - she didn’t specify which one of the 20 choices behind the counter. Why are there so many choices? There were 3 rows of choices at CVS!! They had 12 hour, 24 hour, allergy, allergy and congestion (how is this really different?), allergy reditabs. And all of these came in a myriad of sizes: 5, 10, 15, and 30 tablets. I can see why the sizes are helpful, but the other choices are just too much and add confusion (to me anyway). Why would I buy 12 hour and have to take the pill twice in a day instead of the 24 hour one? What’s the advantage? I looked at both boxes and there was no clear reason why one was better than the other. In this case I’d really be happy with less choice. And it got me thinking about usability.

Users definitely want choices and flexibility, but they don’t want so many choices they get overwhelmed and can’t use a product (or buy one). I like having the most simple options in the UI – basic ones that will be used frequently. Then have a way to get to some more advanced options – this way users can choose to go to there or not. And if they do go there, they know they clicked on advanced so it may be complicated - if it's too much the user can cancel out of them and be on their way. If they never click on the advanced options, the user is none the wiser. Ultimately doing some usability tests with average users can help determine what is an acceptable amount of options and which ones are the most important to have.

It would have been so much easier and saved a bunch of time had Claritin come in one kind: 24 hour allergy and congestion - with two options: 15 or 30 tablet pack. I would only have had to make 1 choice 15 or 30, and not the plethora of choices I had to make to buy the medicine. All this when I already felt terrible with my allergies and just wanted relief!

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