Why Your Product Needs To Be Massively Simple—And How To Do It

What makes a product truly simple and truly mass market? "Cognitive overhead." Bump cofounder David Lieb explains.

You're walking down the street on a hot day and you come across a cool ad for a coconut ice cream. You think to yourself, Ice cream, I like ice cream, and peer into the flyer for more information. An arrow points you to this weird pixelated square thing in the corner: a QR code.

You think to yourself: What the hell are these for, anyway? You look at the inscrutable little square, over to your phone, back at the square, shrug, and walk away. You're parched, and frustrated with these coconut ice cream people.

Why? Too much "cognitive overhead."

What's cognitive overhead?

Glad you asked. Bump cofounder David Lieb unpacks it for us here. He takes his definition from web designer David Damaree:


Cognitive overhead: how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.

Lieb says that minimizing cognitive overhead is crucial for the mass market: if you want to get a hockey stick growth, you're not designing for computer programmers or tech bloggers—you're making it for grandmas and teens who are in line at the grocery store and texting with their friend. And as the mobile wave continues to build, you're also designing for a kid on a motorcycle in Bangkok. That's how massive the broadband mass market is: in a few years, 5 billion people. Which is why, you could surmise, Facebook's giving everyone Chat Heads.

Since the mass market is so massive, your product needs to be massively simple. Not just the number of elements in a page or the time required to use it, but how the user cognitively experiences it.

Losers and winners

While a product can be designed for simplicity, the experience can be a stomp-worthy opposite.

Let's hate on QR codes for a moment longer: While they were designed for speed, ubiquity, and a small number of steps, Lieb says that they dropped the cognitive overhead ball: "So it’s a barcode? No? It’s a website? Okay. But I open websites with my web browser, not my camera. So I take a picture of it? No, I take a picture of it with an app? Which app?"

Conversely, successful products turn complex processes into simple experiences.

Lieb uses Shazam as an example: While the app does the magically complex task of listening to a song and telling you what it is, the user's cognitive overhead remains low.

Like Lieb says, Shazam is so successfully simple because it involves the user in the workflow: You press a button to "start listening," the app tells you it's listening, and your phone vibrates when a match is found. The process could be accelerated, Lieb says, but it would cut the user out of the experience, reducing cognitive simplicity. It's about human-centric design thinking and understanding what, exactly, the user is hiring your product to do.

And how do you figure out if you're simple enough? Well, one way would be to test your app with drunk people—Lieb did.

What products do you think nail simplicity? Let us know in the comments.

Cognitive Overhead, Or Why Your Product Isn’t As Simple As You Think

[Image: Flickr user Neil Conway]

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3 Comments

  • Joseph Fechter

    This is great!  Thanks for the info on 
    Cognitive Overhead.

    I have felt for a LONG time (I am 38 now, so I would say  over 30 years or so) that most advertising sucks and that corporations along with the ad agencies they hire are utterly and hopelessly clueless!  I mean for quick reference look at MOST Superbowl commercials - they are not good at all and total wastes of money when you consider what they cost to make.  I have heard things similar to Cognitive Overhead discussed before - though I am not sure if I have ever heard it articulated in quite this way before.  So again and sincerely, thank you! 

    I said most advertising sucks, because quite simply it is just bad and there is no other way to describe it accurately without getting overly complex.

    I think if people who makes ads could possibly approach it from a perspective such as presented here, and not from a perspective of selling a product, that the ads would be far more successful and actually generate far more sales than the standard advertising model which has long been dead.

    Yes some ads are great, and there are some ingenious ideas out there today yes - but as a whole corporations are leaving millions of dollars on the table by not wanting to think outside the box.  Thinking outside of the box does not mean spending more money on ads......it just means approaching a concept in a way that generates results instead of a way that should generate results.

  • Justin Scribner

    Not for the masses but... the "Quick Install" function in C Panel immediately came to mind. For you Fantastico users out there only installing WordPress, try Quick Install. It wont be the last time you use it :-)

  • Jane Anderson

    I couldn't agree more. I recently attended an event where I saw a fellow Career Counsellor telling the crowd of people who were job seekers to create QR codes as their way to support their job search. I couldn't believe my ears. It was too much them to comprehend as I watched the confused looks on their faces, let alone how to use it for job search. I keep it simple. Linkedin = getting found, Resume = get an interview, Interview = get the job. Thank you for sharing this article, great work! Jane Anderson jane-anderson.com.au