Design thinking | The major-minor-principle

How visual hierarchy reduces cognitive load

Photo by Rob Martinez

If you watch one of Wes Andersons movies, you can notice a very distinct visual style. One of his typical styles is symmetry. But he doesn’t use it arbitrarily. Symmetry in his movies always highlights something important. It shows you what he considers important, instead of telling you. Which in itself is good storytelling. But it also tells us how important visual choices are. Especially in user interfaces, they are far more than frames and vessels. They help us understand without having to tell us explicitly.

It all looks the same

Imagine an interface where all buttons are the same, all choices equally, nothing stands out. This is not only boring but also hard to use. What to chose? Without any guidance, users either take forever to pick, pick randomly or abandon the screen/app/page altogether. Why is that? All features that users asked for where right there. All they had to do is choose the one they wanted. But people are surprisingly bad at that.

Having to compare more than 5 equal choices is quite the cognitive task. Are there any pros and cons? What are the consequences of my actions? This is where the freedom of choice is in the way of user experience. Without telling people what is important and what to look at first, interfaces become unusable, and movies unwatchable.

Only one question

So start your UX review with one question: “What is most important here?” And then make it stand out. Show the user, don’t tell them. You can do this with a whole screen. Or with two lines of text. 3 buttons, 5 images. It does not matter. Picking a clear winner instead of “The user will choose…” will completely change your user experience. Difficult will become obvious. And “obvious” is the biggest UX compliment.

Working with principles

It’s like going through a quiz where you know all the answers. The other options aren’t gone. But now you suddenly know which ones to pick. Because it stands out. Because it’s the major interaction – everything else is minor. And this continues through all visual styles. Title vs. sub-line. Continue vs. skip. Content vs. UI. Core functionality vs. Add-on.

Now every screen should have a most important interaction or piece of information. This major interaction should stand out and be the “one thing” (see “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller) that draws all the attention. Everything else should be visually and in hierarchy secondary in order to guide the user as well as giving him minor interactions. That way all alternatives are easily identified without creating “dark patterns” because deciding against a major option is still less cognitive load than deciding between two equals. This can be applied to all forms of data and visual hierarchy. Headlines and content, actions, proportions, fonts, as well as teams and roadmaps.

Benchmark everything

Now you can benchmark all your UX and UI decisions to an objective goal that has a single purpose; making choices obvious to users. Non-designers, like clients, can review your work on this basis, freeing everyone of the burden of “taste” in the design review process. Making it easy to abandon ideas, especially your own, when they don’t fit a use-case and agree on working ones, no matter who came up with it. And you can apply this principle to other fields too. Dissolving any undecided state without dismissing alternative options with a single question: “What’s most important?”