In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhig recounts a series of studies that were done around people’s willpower. Researchers were trying to find out if willpower is like a muscle, something that can be trained. In one experiment, participants were told they were doing research on taste profiles. They were brought into a room and were presented 2 bowls, one had radishes and the other had warm chocolate chip cookies. Each participant was told to only eat out of a particular bowl. That is, each participant could only eat radishes or cookies, and it was determined by the researchers.
After a period of time, the research assistant would come back in and tell the participant that they had to wait about 15 minutes for the next part of the experiment. In the mean time they were presented with a puzzle and were told to work on it until either they got frustrated and rang a bell, or until the researcher came back in. However, this was not an activity while they were waiting, this was actually the next step in the experiment. The puzzle was literally impossible to solve. Those people who were only allowed to eat radishes spent much less time working on the puzzle before ringing the bell. Additionally, they displayed a much more negative attitude when working on the puzzle, berating themselves for messing up etc.
What the researchers found through this experiment, and others like it, was that willpower is a diminishing resource. That is, the willpower the radish eaters exhibited in passing up the cookies was the same willpower they needed to keep working on the test. Conversely, the willpower the cookie eaters saved by not resisting temptation came in handy when working on the puzzle.
It’s the same reason people tell you to work out early in the morning. By the time you get through a day of decision making and stress at work, you don’t want to go to the gym, you want to go home and relax in front of the TV. If you’re like most people, you don’t even want to go home and cook, you’ll pick something up along the way.
If you think about it, it’s a contributing factor to why diets fail around Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. People have every intention, but as they travel and spend more time with family, stress levels rise (if my family is reading this, not you, obviously, I’m talking about other people.) The stress and little decisions that go into the day of dealing with aunts and uncles and cousins and in-laws and brothers and sisters depletes your willpower and ability to turn down that extra dessert.
So how does this relate to software and your app? Think about the experience your average user has. Are you asking for more information than you really need? For example, if I specify my zipcode, you should be able to know my city. Or if I type in the first 2 digits of my credit card, you should know what type it is without asking me. Those two are very trivial examples, but the represent two times I have to think & decide “Is it a Visa or Mastercard?”
If your application is presenting your users with a lot of choices, and is not guiding them through the process, you are depleting their willpower, just by using an app.
Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of depleting their resources, we could conserve them? I think we can, but it will take more effort on our role as developers and designers. Try to find a way to guide them through the information you need instead of prompting them with decision after decision.