Hick's Law/applying design principles to everything

From Laws of UX

Hick's Law: The time it takes to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choices.
In 1952, [Hick and Hyman] set out to examine the relationship between the number of stimuli present and an individual’s reaction time to any given stimulus. As you would expect, the more stimuli to choose from, the longer it takes the user to make a decision on which one to interact with. Users bombarded with choices have to take time to interpret and decide, giving them work they don’t want.

Laws of UX cites Hick's Law in reference to user experience design, but it applies more widely, as is my experience with all things design.

For example, in consulting, let's say time is of the essence and we have reached a challenge that requires a decision to be made that the customer should at a minimum be aware of. How should we approach it with the customer?

I find it illustrative to visualize a choice like this as a spectrum:

  • all the way to the left: I alone make the decision and never mention it to the customer
  • all the way to the right: tell the customer about the situation, outline, prototype, and demo many possibilities, try to explain the pros, cons, and associated levels of effort to both implement and maintain (even though the customer is not knowledgeable about the details of the technologies involved), and defer to the customer to make the choice

Rarely does either extreme make sense, but it helps me make more tangible how something could play out.

In this situation, where I am the Subject Matter Expert, I most commonly come to the customer with one informed recommendation only, not a menu of options, which is consistent with Hick's Law. It can be a struggle to convey the implications of many options to non-technologists, and a more drawn out decision process creates a longer path to a solution -- their solution. Delegating these decisions to us is arguably a big part of why they have hired us. They can always ask questions, push back, or have the bigger conversation if they see material limitations of our recommendation they aren't comfortable with.

As in that example, my experience has been that design study and thinking applies to communication and most other areas of your personal and work life. If you are interested in a digest that is easy to start and stop as time allows, my favorite design compendium is Universal Principles of Design. (That version is out of print, but it looks like a new version will be released in May.)

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