updated: October 31st, 2014 / Ross Johnson / 4 Comments

Great User Experiences Manage Ego Depletion

Ego depletion… it sounds like something Freud would talk about or maybe what you had for breakfast (that’s Eggo, not ego), but it’s actually a concept highly relevant to designing and building websites. Despite what it sounds like, ego depletion doesn’t refer to self-esteem but the energy you use to make a decision. Just like physical activity, the more energy required the more difficult it is.

Humans are naturally lazy. Lazy is in our DNA; it helps us survive. By conserving energy our ancestors had a better chance of outrunning  a four-legged predator later if need be. Despite our low exposure to threats our innate desire to conserve energy hasn’t worn off. This means we resistant energy expenditure in non-survival situations.

Yes, this even applies to browsing the web. Thinking is hard. If you’re making a user think, their experience is going to suffer. Let me explain further.

The Cost of Thinking

Any form of thinking causes cognitive load. Cognitive load is simply the amount of effort required to store and process thoughts in working memory. While thoughts are store and executed quickly it does take energy to do so. One of the larger contributors to cognitive load is decision making. This seemingly simple task actually has large implications. Despite the fact that we make thousands of decisions per day, each one wears away at our energy eventually leaving us unable to make any decision.

This seems extreme until you break down the process of making a single, inconsequential decision.

How We Make Decisions

Even the most basic decisions require a seven-step process. That’s right… seven steps. Those steps are:

  1. Goal
  2. Intention
  3. Identification
  4. Execution
  5. Perception
  6. Interpretation
  7. Evaluation

Let’s walk through the process in more detail.

Decisions are made to address a need; meaning there is a specific outcome that requires action to obtain (sound familiar?). If you’re struggling to read because the room is dark, your goal is to improve reading conditions.

If the situation is bad enough you’ll develop an intention of doing something about it. At this point you have to identify what event or action is available to achieve your goal, such as turning on a light, which in turn is achieved by flipping the light switch. Ideally, this would turn on a light (as you intended), but it could be burnt out, dim, or the wrong switch. To confirm your action achieved the goal, you must interpret and evaluate the environment. If there is enough light to read, the decision was successful.

Once you consider the process you go through to turn on a light switch, it should be clear why decisions of greater consequence have even greater impact on cognitive load and thus ego depletion. Now that you know what ego depletion is, let’s talk about how it impacts web design.

Time is a Privilege, Not a Right

Before we dissect the impact of ego depletion on web design, let me remind you that when someone visits your site their time is your privilege. They don’t owe you anything and can leave the moment they feel like it. Why is this relevant? Because the more energy you take from them, the more likely they are to leave. Once the perceived amount of energy it will take to complete a task exceeds the perceived value of completing it a user will leave. “Perceived” is an important distinction here, meaning that a user could be one small step away from accomplishing their task but if everything leading up was difficult they might abandon anyway.

The more energy it takes to use your site the less successful it will be. So what are some common causes of cognitive load and the subsequent ego depletion?

  • Having to make a decision
  • Making a decision of high-risk
  • Making a multiple-choice decision (more options exponentially increase difficulty)
  • Looking for and finding elements on the page such as links, buttons, etc…
  • Making mistakes and correcting
  • Comprehending where you are on the site
  • Comprehending what the site is about
  • Reading content
  • Interpreting graphics and visuals

Reading through this list it may have dawned on you that pretty much anything you do on a website takes some amount of mental exertion. Some tasks take more than others. Try and evaluate which sin is worse. Now let’s talk about minimizing ego depletion.

Minimizing Cognitive Load

There are two main methods of mitigating ego depletion: simplification and clarification.

Simplification

Simplifying is the more direct route to an effortless website. If nothing else, fewer elements on the page mean less the user must perceive, interpret, evaluate, and act upon. Fewer words mean there is less to read or scan. Fewer choices mean it’s easier to choose. Reduction is no easy task; however, you’ll always be tempted to “add one more small thing” in the hopes it will persuade someone. Really evaluate these situations before acting. Are you adding value to a page which really only applies to fringe cases? If so, you could be appeasing a small portion of your audience while frustrating everyone else.

Here are some common things to ask yourself as you’re designing:

  • Are navigation labels simple and short? Are they devoid of industry jargon?
  • Can we reduce the amount of items in the navigation?
  • Do we need to have this on the website at all?
  • Is this item / graphic / content valuable to 80% of the audience?
  • Can I simplify the overall design while communicating the same thing?
  • Do we need so many choices or options?
  • If we removed this would users still be able to easily accomplish their task?

There are dozens of other questions you can ask during the design phase, but these should give you a good head start. Now I’ll note minimizing ego depletion is not entirely accomplished through simplification and reduction. There will be times you’ll need to add elements to the interface to maximize clarity.

Clarification

Lack of clarity is when the user must make assumptions about what he/she is looking at and what actions to take. This in turn leads to greater-risk perception, as it may be unclear if clicking a link or button will get them closer to their goal. Simplification must be balanced with clarification to ensure a user understands what is going on and what options exist. There are lots of ways to increase the clarity of your site, including:

  • Addition of microcopy
  • Use of plain, direct language
  • Labels and captions
  • Demonstrations
  • Hints
  • Carefully selected infographics or imagery (make sure the imagery is relevant, not imagery for imagery sake)
  • Contrast (direct users towards important elements through high contrast)

While there are many others, start by evaluating the clarity of your site with these elements.  It will point your mind in the right direction.

Re-Evaluation

Ego depletion isn’t a concern limited to initial design concepts. Websites are iterative, changing and adapting over time. If your site is of any value to your organization you should perform regular reviews to ensure it’s maintaining peak performance. During these reviews you’re likely evaluating things like key performance indicators, page load times, etc. You should also continue to evaluate the cognitive load required to accomplish key tasks.