UIEtips: Riding the Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge

Jared Spool

November 2nd, 2011

Getting your head around a complex design is, dare I say, a complex process. It’s difficult to understand why your users are struggling with all the features and concepts they want and need in your design.

One cause is that we tend to think of complexity as a holistic effect. We try to decide if the entire design is complex or not. However, it’s easier to realize where your design is baffling your users if you hone in on what your users do and don’t know, and what they need to know to accomplish their objective.

In today’s UIEtips, I explore a simple visualization tool we invented to help teams and stakeholders see where their designs are too complex for their users and what they can do about it. I call this tool the Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge and, as you’ll see, it can be quite effective for getting the entire team working on making an easier-to-use design.

Read the article, Riding the Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge.

4 Responses to “UIEtips: Riding the Magic Escalator of Acquired Knowledge”

  1. Lyle Kantrovich Says:


    Another related issue I see with “complex designs” is that sometimes the users are considered to be “experts” by the product/design team. For example the product might be an EMR for highly trained medical staff or an expensive tool for an engineer or scientist. It’s easy for design teams to then reject the concept of simplicity, thinking that their users are too sophisticated for a simply designed tool.

    In reality, many UIs have issues with things that should be simple (e.g. where’s the button to submit the advanced search form). It’s okay to have to train on complicated concepts (like how do I optimize a financial portfolio based on a client’s retirement goals), but a product’s complexity shouldn’t be because basic design principles are ignored.

    Common sources of unnecessary complexity in complex products for “expert” users:
    – If users can’t find something that should be easy to find (like a button)
    – If users aren’t sure what a basic widget does (e.g. a link or menu)
    – Layout and IA make it difficult to find important features or see priority content

    Expert users should be experts in their domain, they often don’t need to be experts in your tool/application. Designers should try to reduce training around the UI as much as possible…training on the tasks/business goals the UI helps the user achieve is realistic in complex domains.

    I like the escalator visualization, and I’m now picturing two escalators (they always come in pairs anyway, right?) with one being the level of knowledge in the application and the other being level of knowledge in the domain.

  2. Jared Spool Says:


    You’re absolutely right. I often separate out the domain’s escalator from the tool’s escalator.

    In fact, there may be more than one domain involved: the knowledge necessary for managing personal finances is different from investing in stock options, and also different from qualifying for tuition financial aid. Three separate domains with their own deep knowledge someone may have to master to invest for their child’s college.

    One could imagine an escalator for each one. Pretty soon, it starts to look like Chutes and Ladders.


  3. Charles Says:

    Our new (and since abandoned) website attempted to provide useful information and tips at every step on the escalator. Unfortunately, the complexity of the structure left customers confused over the first step. As a result, almost none of the wonderful – and very attractive – information was ever clicked on.

    Our problem is that most customers have no knowledge of microscopes – whether they need stereo or compound, for example – and yet they seem reluctant to click on information to learn.

  4. Jared Spool - Salire la scala mobile della conoscenza acquisita - ideawebitalia Says:

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