Let’s look at one of the core characteristics of human behavior. People are lazy. We are. We will do as little mental or physical work as possible to complete a task.
Because we are lazy, we form habits. It takes less mental effort to repeat past behaviors than to form new ones (psst, take advantage of habit formation). Lazy people don’t like to be overwhelmed, so it is important to design solutions with low cognitive loads. Embracing these facts will change the way you design your products and influence your design process. You will start to design within the reality of people’s lives.
Cognitive load is immediate input of information or stimuli the working memory has to process. If the person receives too much information at once, they will experience Cognitive Overload. Cognitive overload taxes the working memory to a breaking point, negatively impacting decision-making. For some, the result is frustration, anger or confusion. For others with neurological problems or cognitive disabilities, this can trigger neurological events such as seizures, tremors, loss of consciousness, and acute confusion. The critical point here is decision making is impaired, so best to avoid causing overload with overwhelming designs and too much input.
Every action your user takes adds to their cognitive load. If your design requires too many actions, their reaction time increases, or worse, you may cause your user to abandon the process. Hick’s Law is simple — reduce the number of stimuli and increase decision-making.
Ways To Reduce Load
1. Less is more. Simple layouts require less brain power than a busy layout.
2. Avoid competing elements. This overstimulates the brain.
3. Avoid decision paralysis. Fewer options take less time to reach a decision.
4. Group like items to reduce mental burden. This helps users mentally process options.
5. Umbrella categories. Design mega-menus in related, digestible chunks.
6. Use common affordances, like familiar controls and language. Don’t use vague metaphors.
7. Step forms breaks down tasks into manageable chunks.
8. Remove redundancies wherever you can to minimize the number of steps a user takes.
9. Conduct card sorts to understand your target audiences ways of thinking and associations.
10. Use subtractive design and conduct user testing. Combination of images, icons, text, fonts, colors, cross-selling all compete for attention.
George Miller & Chunking
In e-commerce, fear of losing a sale tends to result in designs that inundate users with copious amounts of content. Our challenge, as designers, is to group this overload of information in manageable ways for our users to reduce their cognitive load.
George Miller proposed an information processing theory that states the average adult’s short term memory can hold about 5–9 chunks of information at a time, with he duration of short term memory typically lasting 15–30 seconds. If you choose to read more, you will find this theory popularly landed on the magic number of 7 chunks (plus or minus two).
A simple example of a mainstream chunking solution is phone numbers. If you saw the numbers 14155551212, it would be difficult to process and nearly impossible to remember. Break the numbers into chunks, 1 415 555 1212 and it is easier to process. Provide visual support with 1 (415) 555–1212 and your mind can better process and remember the digits through visual association.
Think of UX design as aerodynamic — design should flow with minimal friction. Excessive cognitive load is just that, it’s a LOAD. Require as little brain effort as possible.
If you haven’t read it, a wonderful book on the topic of simplifying user experience is Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think.” And with each project, take the time to complete the following very simple exercise: List every step a user must do to complete a task. Identify any unnecessary actions.