Procedural Knowledge and How it Affects User Experience

Travis McKnight
How procedural knowledge affects user experience by causing cognitive friction - man frustrated lying on his computer

Innovation is a dangerous word in marketing lingo. Someone recently told me, “Let’s create an innovative design that goes beyond what people expect and surprises them.” I hesitated and asked, “Why?”

The answer this person gave is one that I’ve heard countless times while talking about user experience, web design, and user journeys. They wanted their online experience to be unique and edgy. They strived to present users a spectacle and make a lasting imprint on their minds.

In other words, they wanted to forfeit the users’ procedural knowledge and force them to learn an entirely new experience with the hope they liked it better.

Humans are habitual creatures who resist change. Forcing “innovation” on us — for the sake of being different — and asking us to abandon what we’re used to is often a bad idea.  

What Is Procedural Knowledge?

Procedural knowledge is the moment you learn how to do something by experiencing it firsthand.

Do you remember the first time you learned to parallel park? Perhaps you were like me and watched YouTube videos to learn the fundamentals and then watched somebody show you parallel parking in person.

Does absorbing this knowledge mean I instantly knew how to parallel park? No, I only understood the concept. This comprehension is known as declarative knowledge.   

I gained procedural knowledge after acting on my declarative knowledge by working through the process of parallel parking myself.

Why Procedural Knowledge Is Crucial in UX

Here are several “universal” tasks I imagine you naturally do without active thinking.

  • Navigate to a website’s home page without seeing a “home” navigation option
  • Type on a QWERTY keyboard without looking at the keys
  • Copy-paste text into a document
  • Perform an online search without being on Google’s homepage
  • Click on a hyperlink to find related content

You can easily perform these tasks now because you’ve completed these actions at least once before and the requirements to repeat the tasks haven’t changed.

Now, imagine you’re browsing a website and you click on a company’s logo to return to the homepage. But clicking the logo doesn’t take you anywhere and the website doesn’t have a “home” navigation label either. How do you get back?

This example is a moment of cognitive friction, and the general rule of thumb is that friction is bad for your users.

Cognitive Friction

Cognitive friction happens when your users expect a specific, intuitive result from your interface and the outcome delivers unexpected —and often unwelcome — results. Friction increases the cognitive load a task requires because you’re going against procedural knowledge and asking users to gain declarative knowledge instead.

You’re making users work, and as UX guru Steve Krug says, you shouldn’t make your users think too hard about any given task. The more they think, the more reasons they’ll discover not to perform the action you desire.

Importantly, friction is not the same thing as confusion per se, although they may go hand-in-hand. Instead, friction pushes users to slow down, figure out the task at hand, resolve dissonance, etc. And as a byproduct it takes them to a mental state where they’ll think harder about whether they should convert at all.

Friction can be a good thing if you use it wisely. But friction that ignores procedural knowledge causes confused and frustrated users who may abandon the task and choose a more intuitive competitor.  

Reducing cognitive load and moments of friction is why designing toward your users’ expectations is crucial.

Remember, the easier the task, the happier we are to perform it. So if you must change your user experience, then investigate ways you can put procedural knowledge to better use. Consider how to reveal redundancies and simplify how many steps a user must perform in a task and use universal, easy-to-recognize UI patterns. Change can be good, so long as it makes the user’s life better.

Travis McKnight

Travis McKnight

Senior Content Strategist
Senior Content Strategist

Prior to migrating to digital marketing, Travis spent many years in the world of journalism, and his byline includes The Guardian, New York Magazine, Slate Magazine, and more. As a senior content strategist at Portent, Travis gets to apply his passion for authentic storytelling to help clients create meaningful content that consistently delivers a refined experience for users.

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