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Less is more and the magic number is four

Remember this posts title. It not only rhymes. It's the law!

Sometimes the truth is a bit counterintuitive. Conventional thinking is that more is better. More features. More choices. More options. More is more right?

When we first tried redesigning the Hub's front page we made this mistake. We were so proud of all the big and small features that made the Hub easy to use we listed all of them. As a big wall of text no less. In retrospect I don't know what we were thinking.

The magic number is four

Lucky for us, one of my friends who has a bit more experience as a user interface designer agreed to take a look. He was flabbergasted that we listed so many features. He told us to "Pick the top 4 features. Leave the rest out".

We were damn proud of our features so we didn't give them up without a fight. We tried "negotiating" for a middle ground between the number he proposed and the original number of features.

He saved us from ourselves by patiently explaining why the middle ground didn't matter:

This isn't about compromise it's about cognition. If you initially wanted 20 items and I wanted 4 that wouldn't make the right number 12.

Like any good Wikipedian, he provided a citation explaining what was so magical about the number four:

"You will find that the largest number the human brain can comprehend without counting or guessing is 4. Beyond that most people can identify 5 elements in a group by quickly counting them; everything beyond 5 can only be a guess, unless there is enough time for a count."

This was no coincidence, it was evolution.

So an overview item, plus 4 sub-items was the maximum we could go without inducing conscious effort. Requiring conscious effort would reduce engagement. You'll have people reading less content, not more, because they have a fixed attention budget and parsing the number of elements has already tired them.

More choices, less action

Another reason that "less is more" in user interface design is that information overload tends to lead to paralysis. More information is not always better. Often quite the contrary.

This is another one of those counterintuitive truths backed by hard research that anyone designing user interfaces should be keenly aware of.

It explains why giving users more choice actually reduces action.

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