The Touch Bar, Cognitive Load and Usability.

Stoo Sepp
Stoo Sepp
Dec 28, 2016 · 8 min read

I’m a PhD Candidate, exploring the cognitive function of gestures in learning. A number of other subject areas orbit this one, including neuroscience, intelligence, human cognitive architecture but the main area of focus is Cognitive Load Theory.

Cognitive Load Theory is not a theory in the way we think of scientific theories, but an area of Educational Research that focuses on the limits of working memory (sometimes called short term memory) and the things educators can do to make learning more efficient and effective. Most of these interventions have to do with how materials for learning are designed, and what learning experiences look like.

As a web designer and mobile developer, I cannot separate this area of research from Industrial Design, User Experience, or even Graphic Design because the way we experience the world and process information is the foundation of all of these fields. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the MacBook Pro (Late 2016) Touch Bar.

Note: This is not intended as a product review. I actually loved playing with the Touch Bar in the store, and admittedly don’t have day to day experience with it, this article is simply an analysis of the Touch Bar from a Cognitive Science perspective. Feel free to check out the reference list below.

Cognitive Load

The crux of Working memory is that it’s limited in capacity, as well as in duration. In other words, we can only store a certain amount of stuff for a certain amount of time, before our brains start to lose it. Much of what we can store depends on attention and our ability to focus, and this is where the Touch Bar comes in.


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Whatever we see is taken in by our brain and processed. We decide, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously what needs more attention. For example, the color of a wall might not be remembered, but the spider on the wall would be, because the spider might be a threat.

Though there’s no definitive scientific proof of this yet, current research is starting to support the idea that the length of a saccade (the distance our focus shifts as we move from one point to another) is related to our ability to retain and therefore process information. In other words, the distance between two related pieces of information affects our ability to integrate and process them.

Split Attention Effect

Split Attention Effect goes like this. Whenever attention is split between two points, attention and cognitive focus is negatively impacted. It was discovered in the late 80s that if learning materials are integrated (information is embedded to reduce saccades), students were able to retain information and solve problems better than students who looked at materials that weren’t integrated (information is separated).

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Example of Integrated (right) and non-integrated (left) materials related to Split Attention. Tarmizi, R.A. and Sweller, J. (1988). Guidance during mathematical problem solving. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80 (4) 424–436

The Touch Bar and Split Attention

This will lead to a loss of information in working memory when compared to simply performing the same task on main display itself.

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Redundancy Effect

“I saw this thing here, but I also see it there. Which one should I focus on, which one should I give my attention to?”

This is basically what your brain is doing when it’s presented with redundant information. Part of using a computer since the invention of the GUI (Graphical User Interface) back in the early 80s was the idea of a menu bar, and buttons. It’s true that almost every task we perform in most desktop apps have more than one way to accomplish the same goal.

  • File > Save, click the save button or Command S.
  • Edit > Paste, click the paste button or Command V.

Part of designing good user experiences is to reduce complexity and increase usability.

There is always a learning curve to using any tool. Many of us find the use of shortcuts on a keyboard preferable to clicking a button on screen, because we find it faster. Many usability issues come down to personal preference and ease of use.


Distractions are known across disciplines in cognitive science as a way to ‘trip up’ our brains so that we have to work harder on the task at hand, this is why they’ve been used for so long.

Touch Bar and Distraction

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System Preferences > Keyboard

But what about Gestures?

We cannot say definitively that the type of gesture performed on a Touch Bar is not beneficial to completing the tasks at this time, but we always have to look at the experience as a whole. We know for a fact that Split Attention and Redundancy don’t help our brains process related information, so adding gestures would only serve to offset the already existing deficits in using the Touch Bar.

Another related branch of research is all about the focus of attention near the hands. It’s been found that we tend to focus on information faster and longer when the object of attention is close to the hands, so in this regard the Touch Bar is beneficial, but only when it presents a faster means to complete a task, such as doing something buried in a File / Edit menu. If there is a button on screen close to what you are working on, this benefit may not be as prominent, and when combined with the other issues, may only serve as an offset to mediate Split Attention and Redundancy.

The Conclusion

It’s true that looking for a button or menu item, then moving the cursor with a mouse or trackpad may in fact take more cognitive resources than looking close to where your hands are and tapping, but with all these attentional and gesture issues mixing together, we can’t say for sure at this point, except that when it comes to split attention and redundancy, the Touch Bar may not the perfect solution, especially when so many of us use shortcuts that don’t require us to look anywhere, having already been stored in ‘muscle memory’.

I personally won’t be getting a Macbook Pro with Touch Bar for this reason, unless I can have the ability to make it less distracting or turn it off completely. Given that this was marketed as breakout feature, it seems like it’s here for the long run and while it may become the norm in the next few years. Knowing what I know about how my brain works on a fundamental level may require me to keep holding onto older technologies or doing my best to minimize the use of a the Touch Bar, when I make the choice to upgrade.

Overall, the more we learn about cognition, how our brains experience the world, the relationship between our bodies and our brains and how this all works together to process and store information, the more this type of knowledge should be embedded into the design of products and software.

User Profiles, flow design, case studies, pilot testing and other existing strategies are incredibly useful, but and understanding of human cognition should also start to be integrated into practice. Simple is better, but we have to be able to understand WHY simple is better.


Usable or not.

Musings on User Experience, User Interface, Design and…

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