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Ease Cognitive Overload in UX Design

Learn how taxing working memory causes cognitive overload and ways to improve UX design for a better user experience.

User experience (UX) design shapes how people interact with digital platforms like websites and apps. The goal is to make these platforms intuitive, helpful, and enjoyable. Yet, in the quest to add features and information, it’s common to clutter the space, leading to what’s known as cognitive overload.

Therefore, as a UX designer, it’s up to you to strike a balance—and understanding cognitive load theory is the first step. With this knowledge, you’ll have the tools to create digital spaces that users can easily navigate and understand.

So, if you’d like to elevate the user experience with your designs, you’re in the right place. To get started, explore this guide on rethinking UX design practices to ease the cognitive load and improve user satisfaction.

What is cognitive load theory?

Cognitive load theory examines how cognitive processing resources work during problem-solving and learning. It mainly focuses on the role of working memory, which is a limited system for storing and managing information temporarily. Essentially, cognitive load refers to the amount of information our working memory can process at once.

Australian education psychologist John Sweller came up with this theory in the 1980s during a study about problem-solving. His goal? To prove that thoughtful instructional design could improve learning by reducing cognitive load. Later, other researchers found a way to measure cognitive load, shedding light on the limits of working memory.

Together, the research provides valuable insights into how pushing human cognitive architecture to its limit can impact task completion. Depending on the situation, cognitive overload can make people feel stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, and less able to focus on their tasks. This, in turn, impacts productivity, problem-solving, and overall task performance.  

When applying cognitive load theory to UX design, it’s valuable to note that people’s experiences of cognitive load can vary. For example, children and seniors often experience higher cognitive load levels and deal with overload differently from other age groups.  

Three types of cognitive load

When navigating apps and websites, 3 types of cognitive load come into play. Each one influences how users process and engage with digital user interfaces (UIs), impacting their overall user experience. Understanding these cognitive load types can pave the way toward better UX designs. Here’s how they work.

Intrinsic cognitive load

Intrinsic cognitive load directly relates to the inherent difficulty of what you’re trying to do or understand. In the digital realm, this pertains to how complex it is to use a digital product or website. The way the UI looks doesn’t change this. It’s about how complicated the task is.  

For instance, booking a one-way flight ticket on a travel website has a low intrinsic load because it’s a relatively simple task. However, configuring advanced network settings on a router has a high intrinsic load due to the technical complexity.   

Extraneous cognitive load

Extraneous cognitive load refers to unnecessary distractions that take attention away from the main task. In terms of UX, it’s how the interface design impacts the user’s mental workload. It has nothing to do with the task’s difficulty.  

For example, a cluttered and confusing checkout page increases extraneous load, making it harder for users to complete their purchases. In contrast, a well-organized menu on a mobile app reduces extraneous load by allowing users to navigate seamlessly.

Germane cognitive load

Germane cognitive load is the cognitive effort people willingly invest in understanding and completing a task. In UX design, germane load is all about how much effort users will put into engaging with a digital UI.

This type of cognitive load involves activities like learning how the interface works, problem-solving within the program, and building mental schemas or shortcuts. For example, when users invest effort in mastering a new app’s features, they’re using germane load to improve their experience and skills.

How UX design can overload working memory

Working memory is a limited cognitive resource that influences how people interact with digital UI. When UX design doesn’t consider its limits, cognitive overload can occur, negatively impacting the user experience. Here are some design choices that can help manage cognitive overload.   

  • Complex interfaces: Screens cluttered with too many design elements and information can overwhelm working memory. Users might struggle to process what they see and find what they need, leading to frustration and errors.
  • Lack of intuitiveness: Non-intuitive design choices force users to think extra hard to figure out how things work. This extra mental effort can slow them down, making the user experience more challenging and less enjoyable.    
  • Inconsistent design patterns: When designs keep changing in how they look, where they’re placed, or how they’re labeled, users must keep adjusting. This strains the working memory and can be mentally tiring.  
  • Too much information: Pages with too much to read or do cause users to struggle with decision-making and task completion. The extra information floods the working memory and makes it hard to focus and be productive.    
  • Too many simultaneous tasks: Having to multitask to use an interface effectively can overload the working memory. This can quickly result in mental exhaustion and cause users to forget important steps.

UX design tips for reducing strain on cognitive resources

Designing intuitive, user-friendly UI is both an art and a science. At its heart lies an understanding of cognitive psychology and how users navigate digital spaces. The most effective UX designs balance visual appeal with ease of use, effectively managing cognitive overload. To ensure your designs hit the mark, use these tips to create interfaces that reduce cognitive load.

Maintain design consistency to lower cognitive load

Always aim to keep your designs uniform. If users see the same layouts and patterns across your product, they’ll spend less mental energy trying to understand it.

Predictability in design begins with a plan. Outline your design guidelines by choosing the colors, typography, icons, and other elements you’ll use. Also, don’t reinvent the wheel. Use familiar UI patterns to reduce the learning curve and streamline interactions. To make things easier, consider using a website template to keep your design consistent.  

Once you’ve completed your designs, test them on the most popular devices to ensure they remain consistent on various screen sizes. Then, audit your designs for consistency with user feedback and usability testing sessions. Adjust your design as needed to keep things uniform.

Tailor user experiences to meet unique audience needs

Consistency in design is a must, but it’s also important to consider users’ needs and preferences. A design that works for one person might be confusing or difficult to navigate for another. This is especially evident when designing for different age groups and people with disabilities.

As mentioned earlier, seniors and children often experience cognitive overload differently than others. Seniors prefer larger text and simpler designs due to challenges with small fonts and fast animations. Children benefit from interfaces tailored to their age, with bright, engaging visuals and easy navigation.

People with disabilities can have a hard time using websites or apps with messy menus, flashing animations, or low color contrasts. Following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can help reduce those difficulties while ensuring your platform is ADA-compliant.

Given the diverse needs of users, offering personalization options is the way to go. Allow users to control their interface with options like theme changes, font size adjustments, and layout tweaks. Also, consider gathering feedback to understand how to design for a broader audience, making your site or app accessible to everyone.

Prioritize task hierarchies for efficient cognitive focus

The clearer the roadmap, the easier the journey. By identifying the primary tasks users want to accomplish, you can bring those elements to the forefront. The resulting design guides users through the content, saving time and energy.

Understanding your users is key to effectively prioritizing task hierarchies for reduced cognitive overload. Conduct customer surveys and interviews to pinpoint what users want from your platform. Using the data collected, rank tasks in order of importance. Adjust your layout to emphasize primary tasks while minimizing distractions.

Aim to create user flows without any unnecessary detours. In case users get lost anyway, be sure to include intuitive navigation systems. Add menus and breadcrumbs that help users understand where they are and where they need to go.

Avoid too much information to spare cognitive resources

Less is more, especially in UX design. For the cleanest designs, only provide what’s necessary and cut out the fluff. Also, use ample white space to create breathing room and guide the user’s eye through the interface. Users appreciate a simple, straightforward UI that allows them to focus on what matters without getting lost in a maze of excessive information.

Create streamlined designs by thinking about what users need to achieve their goals. Ask yourself:

  • What is the primary purpose of this web page or app screen?
  • Is there any existing information that could be left out?
  • Are there any repetitive or redundant elements?

Use the answers to center your design around the elements that help users achieve their goals.

For instance, on a scheduling app, the main interface should prominently display the month, week, or day view with key appointments. Additional features like setting reminders or adding notes shouldn’t clutter the primary view. Instead, tuck them away in a secondary menu.

Simplify user tasks for streamlined cognitive processing

Every extra step in the user journey is a potential point of drop-off. By streamlining tasks, you reduce the cognitive weight of each action. This ensures that users feel empowered, not encumbered, by your design choices.

Start by mapping out current user paths with flowcharts or user journey maps. Review the path in search of unnecessary steps you can remove. Aim for the least number of clicks or taps required for users to complete the task.

Make the journey easier by using default settings and auto-fill options, especially for forms and checkout pages. Also, add progress bars to help users move through multistep processes. This will ensure users know where they are and what’s left to do.

Position related elements to avoid the split attention effect

Placing related items together keeps users from shifting their focus back and forth across the screen. So, if elements are related, keep them close together to avoid this split attention effect. The elements’ proximity helps users process information more efficiently, reducing the risk of cognitive overload.

Create a logical layout by grouping buttons, icons, and other UI elements based on their related functions. For example, on a digital news platform, cluster all categories like sports, entertainment, and technology in a navigation bar. Or if you have a music app, group playback controls like play, pause, and skip together at the bottom.

Arrange elements on a grid layout to ensure alignment and keep everything organized in logical blocks. Also, separate each group with subtle lines or borders to create distinct zones for related content.

Provide clear and immediate feedback to reduce cognitive strain

Users want to know if they’re on the right track. Whenever they complete an action, it’s helpful to provide immediate feedback. Whether it’s a button click or a form submission, a quick response lets them know if they’ve succeeded or if there’s an error.

When setting up your UX design, make your buttons, links, or interactive elements change slightly when hovered over or clicked. You can have them change color or move to let users know the system registered their action.

In addition, make sure all completed interactions get a response. For example, have your platform pop up a confirmation message whenever users fill out a form. If the action requires some processing time, use loading spinners to let users know their request is being processed.

Integrate worked examples to support the learning process

When designing UI for educational platforms, demonstrate challenging concepts using worked examples. By showing how to complete the task, you give users a model to follow. This eases the learning curve and helps them understand without the heavy mental drain.   

Worked examples come in a variety of formats, such as:

  • Step-by-step guides
  • Video demonstrations
  • Interactive tutorials
  • Annotated screenshots

Choosing the right format depends on the topic’s complexity and the audience’s preferences. An interactive tutorial might work best when teaching a tech-savvy audience about advanced software functions. However, annotated screenshots would likely be more helpful for a beginner audience learning basic software navigation.

Using cognitive psychology to improve UX design

Applying insights from cognitive psychology to UX design is the key to creating genuinely user-friendly interfaces. It enables you to design websites and apps that support how people naturally think and remember things. This ensures their digital experiences feel like second nature, turning your UI designs into user favorites. So, remember to design for reduced cognitive overload and watch your UX career soar to new heights.

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