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Our job as designers is to create experiences that people will not notice. Remove obstacles that would otherwise lead to cognitive load and barriers. Help people preserve brainpower and avoid frustration.

I have taught students and mentored new designers to simplify their layouts and workflows. However, we have rarely talked about how our work can impact stress levels and create negative associations with a product or a brand.

A Brief explanation of Cognitive Load

The amount of mental effort your working memory can handle is cognitive load. We experience cognitive overload when our working memories receive more information than we can confidently process. This often leads in increased anxiety.

Examples of Cognitive Load

Number of choices
Cognitive Load Too many choices - Image Credit:

Cognitive load and forcing too many choices on people who need to safely point their car in the right direction.

It has become more important for UX designers to understand decision architecture to determine the natural pivot points. Our designs should help people quickly make the right choice.

Amount of thought
Cognitive Load too much thinking - Image Credit:

Cognitive load and forcing the people to think too much about the speed limit.

We should also consider when it is appropriate for people to take time to make a decision. In some cases, we want people to pause before they do something that permanently affects a system. In other cases, we can remove complexity to allow them to move forward.

Confusion of choice
Cognitive Load confusing choice - Image Credit:

Cognitive load and confusing people when they need to make a choice about exiting the highway.

People will abandon their tasks when they are faced with a choice they either do not understand or are not mentally capable of making. We can often point our fingers at confusing UI and terminology. People should not have to spend time figuring out their next step or interpreting icons.

A Brief explanation of Cognitive Barriers

Cognitive barrier refers to anything that prevents us from completing necessary tasks to reach a goal.

Examples of Cognitive Barriers

Number of steps
Cognitive Load and Barriers too many steps - Image Credit: Comcast On Demand

Cognitive barriers and too many steps with setting up your Comcast remote.

Early on people started to adopt the idea that it should take three clicks to get anything done. We know now this is a broad generalization for how to simplify experiences across Web and mobile. Nonetheless, the notion is for designers to reduce the steps required to the right balance of number, length, and difficulty. Four easy steps may be more appropriate than one imposing step.

Time between steps
Cognitive Load and Barriers time between each steps - Image Credit:

Cognitive barriers and time between steps with the Ohio Income Tax Instructions

It is not a simple choice of taking a few difficult steps and breaking them into more simple steps. As designers, we have to consider if we are designing the most logical journey. Are we exposing organizational bureaucracy and passing complexity on to the user?

Closing thoughts

In product, we live in an environment of constant refinement. When creating a product that promises to remove complexity, we have to examine and reexamine how we approach our solutions. With pressure to innovate, we have to be on guard to avoid bloat that plagues mature products.

Further reading

Is this all new to you? Start here!
Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd Edition) (Voices That Matter)

The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by George Miller

Why Your Memory Sucks” by Thorin Klosowski

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.