What is Procedural Knowledge and How Does it Affect User Experience?

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

User experience is a crucial element of web design and designing an intuitive user journey. When designing and developing a new website, it’s natural to want your brand’s online experience to be unique, memorable, and at times even edgy. 

Unfortunately, a flashy, unique approach to website design and UX often forfeits a user’s procedural knowledge and forces them to learn an entirely new experience.

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 and creates a poor user experience. 

If you want to create a fantastic user journey, you must learn how to use procedural knowledge to your advantage.  

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

Content Strategy Architect
Content Strategy Architect

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 Content Strategy Architect 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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