(This article hints at a much bigger topic that I’m sure I’ll attack eventually — the difference between what makes something easy to learn and what makes something easy or productive to use are not the same thing.)
Given a task where one approach requires 3 steps and another approach requires 3 steps, it would seem that it’s a toss-up between the two. But much depends on what those steps involve; specifically, what’s the “cognitive load” to the user? How much mental switching do they need to do?
One such example is Sharp microwave ovens. While they don’t do anything radically different from any other microwave oven, they do have a unique feature that is easy to overlook and undervalue — a single button called “Minute Plus”.
If you’ve never encountered a so-equipped oven, the name doesn’t tell you much about what it does. “Add one minute” might be a more descriptive label. Tapping the button adds 1 minute to the timer and starts cooking.
That’s it. That’s the feature, and there’s really no effective way to communicate how brilliant it is.
If I wanted, say, 3 minutes, I could walk up, put the food inside, close the door, tap this button 3 times, and walk away. Done.
Obviously, I couldenter 3 0 0 Start (though some ovens require that you also enter the level of power you want; an unwelcome extra step that guarantees I’ll be taking it back.) But what if, at the end of 3 minutes, the food wasn’t quite as hot as I wanted? If I had 42 seconds to go, I’d need to clear out the 42 and start over with 1 0 0 Start (again) if I didn’t have Minute Plus. That’s a total of 8 “keystrokes”. With Minute Plus, it’s 4.
If there’s nothing on the timer and you tap it 3 times, you get 3 minutes. Hell, if the door is closed, you don’t even need the GO step — it starts after the first tap. If the timer already has 42 seconds on it, tapping Minute Plus will make it 1:42 — even if it’s already running.
I was reminded of this feature as we were adding new functionality to our medical billing system and we wanted to allow the user to add one or more supplemental services to a list. (Those aren’t the exact details but it’s close enough.) The services tend to be “a few” so a quick and simple way of adding “a few” extra entries seemed like the right approach.
My first idea was to give users a button labeled “Add 1 service” which would add a single line to the list which the user could then populate. But what if they needed, say, 20? Are we going to force them to click the button twenty times? How about a second button that says “Add 5 services”? Even if they needed 12, it would be 2 clicks on 5 and two clicks on 1. It seemed like a fairly reasonable approach.
The informal but valuable and knowledgeable focus group I assembled to test it indicated quite clearly and quickly that they hated it. I had, without realizing it, mistaken the casual, carefree usage of a microwave oven with the rather specific demands of medical software billing, all because I love that button.
Instead, we gave users a way to simply enter the number of items they wanted. They can enter a value, click “Add”, and their empty fields appear. In this case, the right UI was the one they understood instantly.