Cognitive load

Usability is about people and how they understand things, not about technology.

Steve Krug

Author, Don't Make Me Think

As designers, it can be easy to get so caught up in the nuances of the process that you forget you’re designing experiences for human beings. But the more you know about the human brain, the better your designs will be.

Enter cognitive load.

Understanding cognitive load and how to manage it is a surefire way to improve the usability of your designs. In this article, we’ll break down cognitive load and its importance—and how you can reduce it to create a better user experience.

What is cognitive load?

Cognitive load is the total mental effort it takes to process information related to reasoning and decision-making; the same parts of the brain you use to browse a website or use an app. This information is stored in your working memory, which is part of your short-term memory.

Your working memory has a small capacity for holding the information your brain needs to process what’s going on. Because there’s limited space, it doesn’t take much to overwork it. In short, any time your user has to stop and think while using your website or app, it taxes their working memory and cognitive load.

Where does the idea of cognitive load come from?

The idea of cognitive load was first explained by educational psychologist John Sweller in his publication “Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design.”

Psychologist World describes cognitive load theory as “a theory which aims to understand how the cognitive load produced by learning tasks can impede students’ ability to process new information and to create long-term memories.”

Famed user experience professional and writer Steve Krug applied cognitive load theory to web design in his influential book Don’t Make Me Think. Turns out, the strategies used to enrich the learning experience are the same strategies that result in a better user experience.

Why cognitive load is important in design

Say you stop at a new grocery store to pick up a few things. You have one goal in mind: Get the items on your list in the least amount of time possible. As you make your way through the store, your brain is constantly learning new things: the store’s layout, how to navigate said layout to find the items on your list, etc.

The more time you spend in the grocery store unable to find your items, the more frustrated you get. Why? Because your brain is absorbing more information than it can handle, and it’s preventing you from achieving your goal.

The same goes for using a website or app. When it takes an excessive amount of cognitive load to use them, the brain starts to slow down, causing the user to feel distressed (read: cognitive overload). Because your design is overwhelming their brain with information, the only way they can escape is by clicking out of your website or app.

People aren’t going to use a website—let alone buy a product from a website–that leaves them exasperated and confused. Every website will require some cognitive load, but the more you can minimize it, the better your user experience.

How to reduce cognitive load

Anything that prevents your user from getting from point A to point B adds to their cognitive load. If your design is unclear, requires too much thought to complete an action, or gives the user too many choices, it will strain their cognitive load. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to reduce it.

Beware of overstimulation

Think about the environments that help you focus. Chances are you find it difficult to pay attention to anything when you’re in a room with people shouting over each other. The same goes for your user.

A screen cluttered with icons, images, ads, and the like is chaos for the user. It distracts them from what they’re trying to do and drains their mental resources. That’s why it helps to distill your design to the necessities: the minimum amount of information the user needs to accomplish a certain task.

Get rid of unnecessary actions

More actions = increased effort for the user. The fewer steps your user needs to memorize, the less information their working memory needs to store, which reduces their cognitive load. (It goes without saying that sacrificing clarity and understanding for the sake of simplicity is not recommended.)

Use familiar visual cues

There’s an established visual lexicon of common affordances and signifiers that users are already familiar with, like the gear icon to indicate settings, or the X to close out of a pop-up. Because users intuitively understand these visual elements, using them on your website or app doesn’t add to their cognitive load. In fact, it makes it easier for them to use it for the first time because there’s no learning curve.

Organize information in a way that makes sense

Your layout and navigation play a major role in the amount of mental effort it takes to use your website or app. Designing layouts and navigation that prioritize relevant information in a way that’s accessible and clear will go a long way in helping your users achieve their goals.

Create a seamless design workflow

Your team’s ability to constantly think through the user experience comprehensively before the product is even created is wholly dependent on your design workflow. InVision gives you the tools and frameworks you need to design a better user experience.

Create wireframes that allow your team to collaborate early and often with Freehand. Use responsive screen designs and interactive prototypes to identify and work through points of friction with Studio and Prototype. And sync every iteration and keep track of design assets with Design System Manager, which makes it easy to learn from the cognitive load pitfalls of earlier designs.

Take a load off

In conclusion, being aware of cognitive load and how to reduce it will minimize the amount of effort it takes to use your design. The result is a more cohesive user experience that encourages people to use your website or app over and over again.

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