Make It Easy For Me

by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady

Our capacity for learning is often linked with our emotional state. Frustration and confusion certainly make for a less receptive audience. Prepare a path for your message by first setting your user at ease.

Principle of Least Effort
First theorized by George Zipf, a professor of linguistics at Harvard University, the Principle of Least Effort proposes that it’s instinctive to want the greatest reward for the least amount of effort. In terms of information technology, the principle was used by Thomas Mann, a general reference librarian at the US Library of Congress (the largest library in the world), to describe the searching and seeking behavior of users.

Mann observed that regardless of experience and expertise, users naturally gravitate to familiar and easy tools, even if the resulting yield is poor. According to Mann, “most researchers (even serious scholars) will tend to choose easily available information sources, even when they are of objectively low quality, in preference to pursuing higher-quality sources whose use would require a greater expenditure of effort.”

His application of the theory describes our natural proclivity to utilize tools that are simple, accessible, familiar, and comfortable. As explained by Mann, ease of use may be more important to the researcher than the quality of results they find.

Mann has written about the Principle of Least Effort not in an effort to malign researchers, but rather to illuminate potential flaws in the design of library systems and search options. He stresses that it is poor practice to blame the “lazy user,” without evaluating the design they are having difficulty navigating.

The gestalt of The Principle of Least Effort can also be found at the heart of usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s Law of Internet User Experience which states “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.”

The understanding of these habits, within a physical or virtual environment, provides a very useful lesson for visual communication designers. We can learn from the Principle of Least Effort when considering how our audiences use the content of the artifacts we create: from wayfinding in physical spaces (Where is the bathroom?), to the organization of an e-commerce site (How do I check out?), to the structure of a travel guide (How do I get to that restaurant from my hotel?). At the start of every design undertaking, the end user’s needs should be the primary focus. Forecasting their abilities, tools of choice, familiarity with technology, access to media, and so on, will help the design team to determine the appropriate artifact and information structure for clear communication. Combined with germane aesthetics, the message not only gets through, it’s memorable.

Frustration and confusion make for a less receptive audience. Prepare a path for your message by first setting your user at ease.

Quick Tips
1. For each unique assignment, consider how the end user might prefer to access content. Has a precedent already been set (e.g. dictionaries are arranged alphabetically)? Carefully consider whether changes you might make to organization would help or hinder the communication of the message.

2. When starting a design project, ask your team to forecast what artifacts/tools/information the end user would find simple, accessible, familiar, and comfortable.

Dig Deeper!
1. This parse is excerpted from The Information Design Handbook by Jenn + Ken Visocky O’Grady.

2. Familiarize yourself with Jakob Nielsen’s Internet User Theories by reading the classic article “End of Web Design.”

3. Learn more about Mann’s theory from his book Library Research Models.