Cognitive Chaos

June 14, 2021
3 min read

Cognitive load. Sounds like the latest tech buzzword, right? Well, it's not. It's a giant, looming monster that can silently assassinate your product's success.

Think of cognitive load as your user's mental bandwidth. It's finite, like the memory on your phone or computer. Load it with too many apps or too many mental tasks, and things start to slow down, to jam up. That's the moment your user says sayonara to your product. Cognitive overload has won.

Let's break it down into two types: intrinsic and extraneous (we’ll leave germane cognitive load for another time).

Intrinsic cognitive load is the core, the essence of the task. It's the basic mental juice required to comprehend a task. Let's say you're checking your bank balance on an app. The intrinsic load is what it takes to understand those numbers once they hit your eyeballs.

Then we have the extraneous cognitive load. This is the irritant, the spoiler. It's the unnecessary mental gymnastics that your design imposes on the user. It's about grappling with a complex password, wrestling with confusing menus, and deciphering a cryptic interface on the screen. This is the bane we need to tackle.

So how do we kick cognitive overload to the curb? Here are the three steps to consider:

1. Cut the Clutter: If it doesn't serve a purpose, get rid of it. You don't need all that visual noise slowing down your user. It's about clean lines, clear labels, and easy, predictable navigation.

2. Don't Mess With the Familiar: Stick with what users know. They've spent a ton of time on other apps and are comfortable with certain design norms. Why reinvent the wheel if it's already smoothly rolling?

3. Be the Workhorse: Take the load off the user wherever you can. Let your system remember past information, and use biometrics instead of password entry. Give your users the luxury of less work.

We're not trying to oversimplify things or treat users like simpletons. That's not the goal. We're striving for a balance, an elegant balance between challenge and ease. Our aim should be to create a product that users can use, love, and stick with, without making them sweat.

Remember, controlling cognitive load isn't a one-and-done deal. It's an ongoing commitment, a pledge to keep adapting and refining. It's about delivering a product that's not just simple and user-friendly but also enjoyable. And that, my friends, is how we hit the product success bullseye.

Note: I’m in the process of putting together a more technical deep-dive on the psychology of UX, which will contain a comprehensive section on cognition and cognitive load. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I recommend taking a look at 'The Overflowing Brain' by Torkel Klingberg - a comprehensive review of the book can be found here.

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©Bora Nikolic 2023

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