Cognitive Load: Why you’re missing the mark by having too many marks
Are users taking too long to make decisions on your website? Has your app failed usability tests due to lack of direction in design? Do you feel like you’ve exhausted all your options for resolving this? The answer to your problems may not be in the lack of design and content but in the abundance of it. As humans, our ability to comprehend images and information is dependent on our cognitive load and the barriers that exist to limit that. Simply said, the more things you put on something, the longer it will take for someone to understand what you’re trying to tell them.
“Good design involves as little design as possible”
- Dieter Rams
What is Cognitive Load?
Cognitive load derives from cognitive psychology, which deals with how people think and the mental processes (perception, memory, or logic) that help people make decisions. At the core of this practice is Miller’s Law which states, “the average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory”. By paying attention to these mental models, we can reduce the amount of processing and effort it takes for people to interact with our designs and products.
In terms of product usability, cognitive load is the capacity of a user to understand and use the product. If the amount of information that needs to be processed exceeds the ability of the user to actually process it, the performance of the product fails and the intention of the design gets lost in translation. Therefore, the cognitive load is too high. Because we can’t change the mental processes or behaviors of our users, we can conduct research and minimize their processing efforts by understanding their limits.
Minimizing Cognitive Load
As designers and marketers, our designs are only successful when they effectively tell a story or direct users to a straight path to their goal. Confusing and complex interfaces force users to find solutions for a problem that didn’t exist in the first place. This leads many users to feel overwhelmed and increases drop off rates on your product.
Although we cannot alter user mental models, we can limit the existence of bad design and interactions and work with these existing models. Here are a few takeaways to remember when designing your next product:
- Utilize short term memory and familiarity – Users should be able to complete repetitive actions with your designs without any guessing. For instance, the return button on your page or breadcrumb links should all function the same throughout your website. One way of providing recall is by changing the color of visited links so users remember what touchpoints they have already accessed. Because users interact with products with their own mental models, utilize layouts, labels, and interfaces that are familiar to your demographic.
- Reduce visual clutter – As designers, we should value practicality over aesthetic appeal. Dynamic designs and interactions can contribute to the overall look and feel of a product, but it is more likely to become distracting and irrelevant when it comes to accomplishing a goal on your interface. Better understand your target audience and design based on their expectations and preferences.
- Make copy concise and as limited as possible – We shouldn’t expect our users to make inferences while using our products but you also don’t want to overwhelm them with filler text that requires effort to read and has a low payoff.
Keep in mind, these are simply guidelines for being more cognizant of our user’s mental capacity to retain information. This is by no means rules to designing. Users shift from product to product, therefore mental models and certain norms also change along with that. By understanding cognitive load, you are simply understanding the user’s ability to synthesis and process information at any given moment. At the end of the day, you want your designs to serve as guidance, not distractions.