What is Excise?

In Alan Cooper’s About Face 3, there is an entire chapter dedicated to excise. I’ve used the word in passing before and it is often asked, “What is excise?” Simply put, excise is any action that doesn’t directly contribute to a goal, but still must be taken. Rephrased, excise is anything that a system asks a user to do that doesn’t directly move the user toward their goal.

For example, when an email client requires a login, that is excise. Of course, the login is arguably necessary to identify the user and to keep the user’s email secure, but it doesn’t contribute to user’s goal. The user’s goal in this case is to consume and distribute information. In fact, that likely isn’t their ultimate goal, their ultimate goal is to some other purpose and email is merely a means to an end. Therefore, email itself is a sort of excise, and the login prompt blocking access to email is one more bit of excise added to everything must do to achieve their goal.

Any time we, as product creators, decide (consciously or unconsciously) to add excise to our product, we are reducing the efficacy of our users as they attempt to accomplish their goals. Here are some common areas of excise:

  • Cascading menus
  • Navigation
  • Accordions
  • Trees
  • Dialogs, errors, notifications, alerts (“Interrupting the proceedings with idiocy or insanity”)
  • “Training wheels” (tutorial process, wizards)
  • Navigation (screen changes)
  • Visual excise (noisy visualization, clutter)

It’s important to clarify that, realistically speaking, excise cannot be eliminated, but efforts should be made to reduce and soften the effects of excise.

A final note, excise is more noticed and more detrimental to expert (power) users. But, satisfying expert users and the expense of novice and intermediate users is usually a bad idea. This is one of the reason there are often more than one way to perform an action in software and why shortcuts exist.