Feb 19, 2017

A Better User Experience — Cognitive Overload

The less people have to think, the more people can focus on their goal. True with most activities in life and especially important with interfaces where users patience levels are reducing year on year.

If you’re a designer of interfaces, your job is to give the user as straight a path as possible. If the experience is natural, easy and smooth as possible, the user shouldn’t even notice it. Getting to this nirvana requires deep thought, patience, research, understanding, many iterations and tests, so you as the designer can make important cross road decisions.

The opposite to a user friendly interface is confusion and a learning curve so steep the user gives up. Requiring a user to think heavily is called cognitive overload.

A Better User Experience — Cognitive Overload

In a Nut Shell, What Is Cognitive Overload?

Much like RAM (Random Access Memory) on your computer or laptop, there is only so much your computer can remember or view at one time before you need to close applications or reboot. Cognitive overload happens when your mind receives more stimulation than it can digest in one go. In humans cognitive overload leads to anger, frustration and rash decision making.

To understand cognitive overload fully, you have have to understand how the brain works and the difference between short term and working memory.

Working and short term memory often work in tandem but they are slightly different. Your working memory manages the digesting of information, your short term memory is more like your copy board on your computer. It’s important information you want to keep but not important enough to save it to your computer/long term memory.

Keeping interfaces simple can achieve results when trying to a get a user convert or go where you want them too. Remember when a user views your interface for the first time, they will be used to nothing but common practices. Your designs and content have to guide and inform the user.

If a user has to investigate or figure anything out on your interface, all you’re doing is annoying users. Simple questions like “where is the home button?” shouldn’t need to be asked by the user.

This article concentrates on User Experience (UX) and User Interaction (UI) design but make no mistake, everybody is involved in reducing the cognitive load. I’m pointing at you CMS/content editors and marketers. The content has a huge impact on the cognitive load. If the content doesn’t make sense or reflect a users goal at the time, you’re adding to the cognitive load.

With the above in mind…

What Are The Most Common Causes of Cognitive Overload?

Over Stimulation

Just like a presentation or seminar, if you have to read a content heavy slide while the presenter is talking, you either concentrate on the slide or presenter and take notes or try to concentrate on both and make confused mixed notes.

Lings Cars

Over stimulation - Lings Cars

The same applies to UI design. If you have too many styles mixed in, fighting for attention, users find it hard to focus. More often than not, users will abandon your interface. Every visual distraction demands the users attention and adds to the cognitive load.

The Solution

All interfaces if available on mobile, should start mobile first. So starting mobile first, list everything that is displayed. Now mark every action that is essential to the users journey or task at hand. Once you have this list, ask yourself: Are the other items on your list essential? If you do have any items on the list that are not essential, try to come up with a rational argument of why they’re required.

Get rid of anything that’s not essential. Removing elements can help streamline the process and help with reducing load times. Not a golden rule but studies have found that users actually prefer simple interfaces over complex ones upon first viewing an interface.

Too Many Options

Users say they want as many options as possible until it’s time to choose.

Made famous by William Hick and Ray Hyman, Hick’s Law studied and first tested this conundrum in the 1950’s. The more options a user has, the more time they need to make a decision. Since then further studies into behaviour confirmed the Hick’s Law theory.

The Solution

Having got rid of all none essential items on a small screen, you may still be left with countless options. Many travel websites have this issue, they offer hundreds of destinations, so the essentials list is still long.

The next question you need to ask yourself is: Can I take any of these items or options and create groups?

AirBnBs Flight Map

At this view a user would be better off choosing a country or major city first — not town.

It’s not about too many options in this scenario as the options being available is valid. It’s about, are you giving too many options at one time. I call this: can the content breath? Does the content have enough space around it to be a bite size chuck of information and easy to digest. Or can you hide any items to revealed after an action or touch.

Breaking Common UI Patterns

This is by far the biggest culprit in confusing users. If your icon goes against common use or needs explaining and doesn’t have a descriptive element visible at all times, create a new icon or bin the icon. Keep the words and make a button in the style of your UI.

The Solution

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Taking from other commonly used software, operating systems being the biggest example, reduces thinking time required to digest and understand the icon.

Users rely heavily on common patterns to learn controls of interfaces they’ve never used before.

The same can be said for labels on buttons. Labels like “Search” are more recognisable than “Go”. Unfamiliar labels make the user pause and question what the button does. Do not sacrifice clarity for artistic licence.

This way of thinking has advanced over the last 20 years but for those of you who learned your trade in the era of apps (early 2000) this was brought forward with Skeuomorphism and the Human Interface Guidelines from Apple.

In Summary

These are just a few of the things you can do to help lower the cognitive load. There are many more culprits.

There are countless resources to help designers and marketers understand how users think and what is best practice. For those wanting to get a grip on cognitive theory I strongly recommend reading Steve Krugs, Don’t Make Me Think, which I’m re-reading for the third time myself. I find this book a great reference to remind myself, keep things simple if possible.

You may have noticed I have used mobile or small screens as my base for this article. I am a true believer that mobile design should come first, starting with as little function as possible. Once you have this and your MVP, you can design and add additional necessary options as the screen size increases.

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