The Power of No

by Zack on August 23, 2009

The Power of No

Did you have a pet when you were growing up? Please select from the following list:



















The majority of people would answer dog or cat. Smaller mamals like hamsters and gerbils also have a strong following. You could probably count the number of kinkajou owners on one hand.

Since most people choose dog or cat, and those options are on the top, are the rest hurting anything? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. Scientists have been studying how choices effect decision making for a long time. Cognitive reasercher Donald Redelmeier conducted this simple experiment with college students:

He asked students to imagine two options:

  1. Attend a lecture by an author you admire.
  2. Spend the evening in the library studying.

Most of the students chose the first option. Then he ran a second experiment with three options:

  1. Attend a lecture by an author you admire.
  2. Spend the evening in the library studying.
  3. Watch a foreign file you’ve been wanting to see.

In the second experiment twice as many students chose to stay in the library and study than in the first one. Adding just one more option changed the decision many students made. For this experiment removing the third option is a simple answer, but in real life removing options means saying no.

Many years ago I wrote a code editor as part of a larger tool that helped programmers write applications. Programmers spend hours a day working in code editors and small differences can cause debates of religious fervor. I was adding a feature that automatically finished commonly typed code blocks. For example, if you typed if it would expand to:

if () {
}

The list of phrases was configurable, but I wanted to give the user many useful defaults. I added over 50. Two of my teammates cut the list down to the 15 most common choices before the product was released.

I agonized over their change. For every phrase they removed I imagined users tearing their hair out. In my mind they cursed us for forgetting their most commonly used phrases.

And of course it didn’t work that way at all. Removing the extra options made everything much more usable. The years have given me some perspective, but I was emotionally invested at the time. Every one of those options seemed important to me. I wouldn’t have added them otherwise.

Saying no is always hard. Yes makes people happy and no makes them upset. Telling other people they can’t have something is confrontational; saying no to yourself takes will power. No is difficult, but it is also powerful. No makes your applications better.

Everything on the screen is something the user must look at and decide if they should ignore. You may have never had a pet porcupine, but you still had to read the option and decide not to select it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike July 22, 2010 at 9:12 am

Nicely written, and good points.

It’s often challenging to stop, because you just know there’s so much more that would be “useful.” But too many choices can slow things down. Customizable toolbars is a good metaphor, I think. You can easily add or drop the tools you need. In this case, you build the tools and let the user decide.

Wrote a fairly large help system a few years ago, which became a .chm and was favorably received. That taught me a lot about keeping things simple, and providing the user with the option to link to specific, more granular information if they needed it.

Mike

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