Complexity is subjective
Have you ever wondered why starting your car seems so simple? You put the key in the slot. Turn it. BAM, it starts. It seems effortless to use. You 'get it' . Until it goes wrong. Complexity is subjective; if you understand something it’s not really complicated. An engine is infinitely complicated, with the majority of people unaware of how they work. This is with good reason. You don’t need to know this information to use it. However, at the point of malfunction you lose complete understanding, moving from simplicity to infinite complexity.
Adverts make the web complicated!
As UX practitioners, we can design the ultimate user experience, but our hard work can be undone by unplanned adverts and interfering content. In an ideal world, all clients, developers and website managers could reach the same level of understanding as UX practitioners. But in reality changes are often made beyond our control, changing users' experience. How can we be pragmatic about this? We can design for Gestalt principles and simplicity, but we can also design for what I call ‘Congruent Interference Avoidance’ or CIA. Imagine this: You are very hungry. Having gone without food for about half a day, someone places a steak and kidney pudding in front of you. But you hate kidney. I mean really hate it. Yet you can’t tell the steak and kidney apart very easily, because they are the same size and colour. So despite the fact you didn’t want to eat the kidney your focus on satisfying your hunger means you eat both! So congruent interference is when we are so mentally busy; information that we want (which is the steak) is processed (eaten) quite rightly. But we also process the information we don't want (we eat the kidney too!).
Figure 1: Alan Sugar
We have a limit to how much information we can process at one time (perceptual loading), and like a business, we have a 'Grand Fromage' to make sure everything gets done on time and resources are applied appropriately. This manager is your central executive, located somewhere in the dark recesses of your working memory. I guess it could be seen as the Lord Sugar of the brain, making sure important tasks aren’t neglected.
For example, imagine you are searching for a DVD. Searching for a particular genre such as horror, but not an exact title. Have a look at HMV.com. During a browsing task it’s awash with promotions, videos, descriptions and links to other areas of the site, when compared to say looking through one site with very similar ads on the side, for example: compfight.com. It’s perceptually demanding with large quantities of images and a side bar of almost identically styled advertised images. Which do you think is the hardest to search through effectively? No? Give up?
If you said websites such as compfight.com, well done and give yourself a pat on the back. Because of the way the page is laid out it forces us to look at it in a state we aren’t comfortable with. Or rather our resources aren’t comfortable processing information in this manner. They are happier on sites like HMV.com! Imagine Lord Sugar is monitoring many teams, he’s at his maximum, and he couldn’t look after another team of obnoxious individuals effectively if he tried. This means our working memory load is very high. In order to find the title we want he’s focusing his teams on reading through the list of horror films and checking suitability by rating, popularity, price, availability etc. There is a large amount of information on the page and whilst its means we perceive a large amount, it’s also quite varied in its form. Sugar makes sure that ‘team synergy’ do not read anything irrelevant. Whereas with compfight.com, in order to actually process the page at all Alan Sugar has to use more resources than he wants to, and true to form he can't watch them all at once. Because he is stressed, his criteria for choosing what information to process loosens. He starts processing information that seems relevant just at a glance, information he would normally reject. Or rather we look at all information because it is similar; we aren’t able to filter out irrelevant information. Really similar or ‘congruent’ items slip through and are processed simply because they don’t seem different enough! (Lavie and Fockert 's paper on working memory). In some ways it's like the morning after the night before. After having a quite long night and one or two shandies, you do the most human thing you can just about manage to do. You make a cup of tea. But, imagine your head at the time, groggy, painful, the world spinning? Your brain is busy, not just busy but mentally 'strained', you can't think. So you just grab for the sugar. But because of your state you pick up the salt instead. YUCK! Figure 2 will help explain what I mean. When information is very similar, the more you are seeing and the more you have to manage resources, the more distracted you become!
Figure 2: Approximate level of distraction when viewing a page with incongruent information
It's related to the Stroop effect (Botvinick et al is a good paper for this). This also offers an explanation of ‘banner blindness’ (Brajnik's paper on online advertising effects); if information isn’t related to the content processed, it's ignored by the central executive (good work Alan). In cases where the page is a lot simpler, with less information, such as a content page on the Guardian website, research suggests it’s much easier to distract a user. Being a tad lazy, Lord Sugar uses errors to decide which information to use and reject (or indeed ‘fire’). If information was to change and stand out more, perceptual loading would increase, the amount you are distracted lessens over time as Sugar manages the resources accordingly. And if your working memory is unengaged? (Alan Sugar doesn’t have a lot on) He’s noticing a congruent, yet irrelevant piece of information and ignoring it (how much attention do you pay to the listed approach to adverts on Google?).
Know your content!
Knowing your content is vital; are you designing a page purely for browsing or a page for detailed and complicated material? If you know that the page you are creating will not take a lot of effort to read through, try and make sure you leave as little space for extra content to be introduced as possible. If you know that the page you are creating will take a large amount of resources to process, where possible attempt to protect the task visually. If new congruent information is introduced at a later date, distance will help the user avoid it (see Brajnik's paper).
Is it beyond control?
But sometimes this goes beyond our control. It doesn't take a lot of surfing to quickly find a website that is so over subscribed to adverts that they actually interrupt and break users' task flow by using nasty tactics of playing sounds or physically changing the entire visible content on the page. Whether the information is congruent or not its intrusiveness is frustrating. Whilst users avoid these adverts like the plague (Edwards' paper on pop up ads) its largest impact is that it generates a negative impression of the website (Macias's paper on interactive advertising) and even worse, the branding!
Figure 3: There’s an optimal relationship between the amount you know and the simplicity of something. If something is simple it’s a means of understanding.
If a website forces you to operate in an unnatural state, i.e. your resources are over employed; it is a pretty poor website. A good website is one that matches good design to behaviour. A part of matching behaviour to design is making sure things are easy to process. Naturally we all want to avoid congruent interference; it's very tricky to use a website when we can't concentrate on information. When large amounts of information are congruent, the user experience is compromised. Users can never process everything that is put in front of them, especially when the lines are blurred. Even something simple can be made to feel complex. Our job as UX designers is to ensure it does not feel too complicated. A part of that is 'Congruent Interference Avoidance'. However, in many cases we are limited in how we can solve these issues by a client’s understanding. In short, how simple a concept is to them. As UX practitioners our knowledge can be vast; we can even design for meaning (read Simon's article on designing for meaning). But sometimes our knowledge just isn’t enough. In these cases our ability to persuade is what makes the difference to user experience. Not how much we know.