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Cognitive Load - The fight for focus in time-critical situations in your product.


07 Aug 2023 | Andrew Newman

It’s in vogue for web and software companies to talk about “slick” design and “intuitive” interfaces, but how many understand the science behind it? How many consciously design and build with a user’s cognitive load in mind?

In this article, we take a look at what cognitive load is, why it matters, and how we really do make planning for it second nature at gravity9.

Get out of the way!

Our user experience team live and breathe design principles, putting them into practice in every project. Speaking with Experience Director Andy Newman, he elaborated:

Cognitive load is the fight for focus in time-critical situations.

It’s a multi-dimensional construct representing demands that a particular task imposes on the cognitive system.

While the interfaces we build are smooth and uncluttered on the surface, hundreds of crucial design decisions have been made in order to guide and inform users and prevent trouble.

Momentary pauses are dangerous. Whatever holds the user up, we need to get it out of the way; we make straight paths to goals and only include absolutely necessary obstacles. Anything less could lead to excess thinking – cognitive overload – that diverts them from their main goals and leaves them thinking, “I’m overwhelmed and confused!”

Speaking of an uncluttered interface – a complicated or confusing one will force users to find solutions to problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place, be it confusion regarding options, interface, or navigation. This confusion can lead to frustration and compromised decision-making. Not good!

Restating the golden rule to avoid cognitive overload and poor experiences:

Get out of the way! Create straight paths to goals and clear out obstacles. 

If you’re seeing these common symptoms…

– Unnecessary actions.

– Overstimulation.

– Too many options / too much content.

– Ambiguous interface or internal inconsistency.

– Hard-to-find pages and features.

…you may be breaking the golden rule.

To help combat cognitive load issues, we have a few other tricks up our sleeves.

– Change problem-solving methods to avoid means-end approaches that impose a heavy working memory load by using goal-free problems or worked examples.

– Eliminate the working memory load associated with having to mentally integrate several sources of information by physically integrating those sources of information.

– Eliminate the working memory load associated with unnecessarily processing repetitive information by reducing redundancy.

– Increase working memory capacity by using auditory and visual information under conditions where both sources of information are essential (i.e. non-redundant) to understanding.

So, what really is Cognitive Load, anyway? 

Cognitive Load is a psychological term that describes the capacity and use of a person’s working memory resources. It builds on widely accepted Information Processing models (Atkinson-Shiffrin (1968), Baddeley-Hitch (1974)) that illustrate how we process incoming information through Sensory Memory, Working Memory and Long-Term Memory, utilising rehearsal, and retrieval to aid recognition (with some loss along the way: forgetting).

Psychologist John Sweller went on to develop Cognitive Load Theory in 1988, intended as a scientific approach to designing learning materials that aid the absorption and retention of said information.

As Working Memory has a limited capacity, it’s important not to overload it. This is important in all content design, not only educational material, and is especially critical when building an accessible, comfortable user experience.

Clearly, it’s something that web and software teams can’t afford to underestimate or overlook!

Common methods to address these problems:

– Visual Chunking – Present information in easily recognisable groups to be easily processed and understood more quickly.

– Remove Unnecessary Steps – Make it easy for the user to focus on what matters by automating or removing extra actions on the path to navigating your product. Guide their navigation so they don’t need to worry about “what’s next?”.

– Follow Conventions – While innovation can be powerful, some functions work best as they are. For instance, an “X” button is universally known to close an interface, view, or program. Swapping that symbol for an “O” or a “>” would confuse the user and force them to waste time learning an unnecessary new design approach to complete a basic function.

– Eliminate Visual Clutter – In harmony with time-tested conventions should be an overall reduction of clutter. Consider Google’s famous Material Design and how it marries a minimalist approach with consistent design rules that let users hop seamlessly across product suites that feel “familiar”.

– Learn How People See – Again, innovation can be powerful, but there are natural trends in how users view a screen or page. Eye-tracking software and studies are widely available to see where content should be placed (and how it should be arranged) for optimum visibility and consumption.

Wrapping up.

Here we’ve talked about cognitive load, some of its science, and industry-adopted best practices. More than that, we’ve shown that our experts at gravity9 fully understand these principles and their importance in the design process that builds with the user in mind.

A good UX can make all the difference between a positive and negative user experience, even if your product is functional in every other respect. Its value can’t be overstated, but with these tips in mind, building to reduce cognitive load needn’t be too much to bear.

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