UX Word of the Day: Cognitive Load

How many times have you run into a grocery store without a list—confident you will be able to remember everything you need—and then returned home missing one or more items?

It’s not just you. It’s hard to keep several thoughts in our brains at the same time.

Cognitive Load

The amount of effort it takes the average human to retain information in the short term.

There are at least 3 places where recognizing and minimizing cognitive load can make a big difference:

Reading

Even just reading information on a website takes cognitive load.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at how differently NerdWallet and Chase display credit card information.

In the NerdWallet example, what does $400 and $603 mean again? I’ve already forgotten and now need to scroll back up the page. A quick solve would be to use sticky labels, or to do what Chase does — just repeat the column header labels for every row.

NerdWallet: More Cognitive Load

nerdwallet credit card table

Chase: Less Cognitive Load

chase credit card table

Completing a Multi-Step Process

Consider how users complete tasks and what information they need to complete a multi-step process, such as:

  • Writing a citation or filling in numbers from another source
  • Viewing a slide deck or video
  • Filling out an application for a mortgage, credit card, university admission, etc.
  • Registering for an account
  • Booking reservations for a hotel, car rental, airline, etc.

Is there critical information the user will need again later? How can you present it to them again or make that information easily accessible?

Making Comparisons

When shopping for complex products or services, we aren’t buying solely based on appearance or price. There are other factors and compromises to consider:

  • Understanding the differences between 2 similar products. Why is this digital camera less expensive than this one? What are their shutter speeds? Which one had the higher customer rating?
  • Finding the product or service that has the best TOTAL price. How much is this product plus tax and shipping vs. the more expensive product with free shipping? Are there any hidden fees to consider?
  • Deciding which solution is the best value and the best overall fit. Where are all the hotels in my budget located? Which ones are near public transportation? What restaurants and sites are near this hotel vs. that one?

Talk to and observe your customers to figure out which information they’re comparing, and then design an experience that diminishes cognitive load.

7 Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

  • Design and write in a simple, straightforward way
  • Use filters for easier winnowing
  • Use sticky header labels
  • Use tables for easier comparison
  • Group similar concepts together
  • Be consistent
  • Use both audio and visual cues

See also: UX Word of the Day Index

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Author: Kristine Remer

June UX is led by Kristine Remer, a CX / UX research and strategy consultant in Minneapolis. She helps companies drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and user personas, Kristine is either kayaking or watching her kids play soccer.