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Design thinking | The burrito principle

When and how to give users more choices


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Kai Hacker

2 years ago | 3 min read

Walking into a burrito bar for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. Big boards show you all the ingredients and everything that can be combined with what to create your perfect, customised burrito promising to deliver exactly what you want and how you like it.

But you have no idea where to begin. Then you spot the pre-made burrito, and end up ordering the one that’s named after the place.

Because if you have nothing to compare it to, how would you know what else to pick? If anything, their “main choice” would be the ideal and logical benchmark.

Had it not been for the simplified option, you would have probably walked out again, without a burrito. And it’s the same when experiencing new interfaces.

Without any guidance, without a default option, we are lost. Yet we couldn’t even say what we don’t want or what we disliked; we simply leave, registering as a drop-off in the user testing software.

Choice isn’t everything

Guiding users while also providing choice doesn’t have to be an opposite. It can even be complementary, allowing new users an easy entry while giving seasoned users the versatility they need.

Having a starting point that resonates with the users’ needs (“I want a burrito”) is inviting, even to a more complex process. It provides a reference point for new users and familiarity for those returning. Kickstarting a mental model of a product, decision tree, or process that people can start again as often as they like.

Mistakes can be corrected and successes can be learned and internalised, scaling complexity with proficiency.

With this simplicity, starting an action or process with confidence (because everything is working as learned and expected) makes us feel good,

having quickly trained our mental System 1 (see “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman) until that action becomes intuitive and feels effortless. Because we literally need less mental effort.

Ask the real question

How can you apply this to a designed user experience? You have to ask yourself the tough question: What is it that users want the most? What is the core product? What is the hot hog, in my hot dog stand? In a world of features, this isn’t always easy.

But it is necessary for all forms of communication with people, be it user interfaces or marketing, because people are exceptionally good at detecting an “empty shell”.

A frame without content. A burrito without filling.

Once you have laid out a path to your core product or process, you can test if the assumptions about users are correct. This is where you will get real feedback.

Even if it’s just “that’s not what I want”, it is clear enough to benchmark the core assumptions. That’s why empathy and iterations are core components of Design Thinking.

When the product is stripped to its absolute core, you can start to add features back in; individual options that build all on the same base and support the same idea.

A base that you now know fulfils a need, a desire. Only then should you add and customise the experience to returning and experienced users.

This is where more choice actually is a strength. Adding personalisation to a mental model we already understand doesn’t feel like having to choose. It’s just adding what’s missing.

Make burritos, not features

Carefully selecting, removing features, and grouping information into mental models that are easy to understand affects the user’s experience more than a feature ever could.

And building up a product around these established models ensures that the original vision doesn’t get lost. It is a chance that every iteration tends to be a step forward rather than sideways, because the benchmark is established from the start. It makes your product identifiable by its core quality, like Dropbox, Twitter, Instagram, a hot dog.

Or a burrito.

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