What’s your cognitive overhead?

“Try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

In this first episode of “Mad Men,” Joan Harris introduces Peggy Olson to an IBM Selectric typewriter — the harbinger, though few suspected it then, of word processors and personal computers. In fact, the legendary Selectric was a primitive computer disguised as a typewriter.

I’m not about to get into the sexism of the 1960s, which is portrayed so well in the AMC series. I want to talk about simplicity. The beauty of the Selectric was that, despite complex functionality, it was easy to use.

How simple are your products? And by that, I mean everything from purchasing to set-up to use. Do your customers welcome their interactions with you? Are you Ikea (easy-to-follow wordless assembly instructions) or an endless automated circling phone tree? Are you Amazon 1-Click or one of those ghastly e-commerce sites that forces you through three screens of forms to place an order?

Even on the shelf, simplicity sells.

You worry about your business’s operational overhead. How is your “cognitive” overhead?

High CO, if you hadn’t guessed, is a bad thing. Cognitive overhead refers to the number of steps your brain goes through to figure out a product or process. You don’t want to make people think too much. Yet that’s often what designers and engineers do. They add all sorts of bells and whistles because they can — and because they think customers want choice.

I’ve been experiencing a heavy load of cognitive overhead lately. A couple of months ago, I bought a new car. I love it. I love it in that happy-to-get-into-it-in-the-morning/sorry-to-put-the-garage-door-down-at-night way it’s possible to love a sculpted, rolling hunk of metal, glass and plastic.

But this wonderful vehicle came with not one, but two thick manuals. One tells me about oil changes, gears, the air conditioner and so on. The other one is about all the other buttons and gadgets. Every night for a week, I hauled the books in from the garage and studied. As an example, three buttons, depending on how I press them, yield a dozen different display combinations for the instrument panel. I can change the colors! I fumbled the first time I wanted to switch to high beams.

Surely it could be simpler? Would I love my purchase any less if it were?

I’ve already written about my recent encounter with Microsoft. The initial buying decision was complicated with so many product options and pricing “packages” I walked away from my first attempt.

Microsoft, according to this article, is finally facing up to the consequences of being a company built by software engineers for software engineers rather than consumers. The accompanying video is a hoot — until you discover it was created by the company for internal use. They’ve got a cognitive overhead problem, and they know it.

Choice does not make us happy, according to psychologists. Having too many choices makes us second-guess ourselves: If I choose the blue widget with sprinkles and silver trim, I wonder later if I’d have been happier with the red one that comes with spangles and gold trim. Or the green one with no extras but a trade-in guarantee. If I opt for the “premium” expert package, maybe I would have gotten more benefit from the “super-duper double savings” smart-user package.

Gosh. I just want a functional widget I can start using immediately.

If you aren’t addressing the cognitive overhead lurking in every touch point between you and your customers, here’s something else to worry about: Your competitor is.

The week ahead

I’ve just got one thing to say about this Friday’s upcoming issue: Top 100 Private Companies. See who’s on the list (and who isn’t) this year and learn from top midstate executive and business owners what’s made their companies stand-out performers.

You might meet some of these leaders at a midstate networking event this week. Here’s a list of opportunities.

Finally, here’s a different way to engage — engage with the future. On Tuesday (Aug. 6) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Harrisburg Young Professionals will host HYP Lemonade Day at Hilton Harrisburg, First National Bank and Royal Cleaners, all on Second Street.

HYP partnered with The Salvation Army of the Capital City to teach kids the basics of running a business. HYP members worked with students throughout July to create business plans, learn the basics of marketing and develop teamwork and leadership skills. On Tuesday, you can support the young entrepreneurs and see what they’ve been working on. Lemonade in August? Sounds like a great idea.

The rewind

If you think typewriters are obsolete, think again. They may be the technology of the future, at least in the spy world. Vladimir Putin thinks so. And forget about that old movie plot device about reading keystrokes off a used typewriter ribbon. There’s a fix for that.

Hope Stephan

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