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5 Facts about Cognitive Overload in Design
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5 Facts about Cognitive Overload in Design

Picture this. A user finds the premise of your app really intriguing and useful, they download it and open it immediately. But, 5 steps into the journey and they realize that the navigation is draining their brainpower. Before they could really explore the app, they quit it. Your painstakingly made and detailed design doesn’t see the light of day.

When you need to take a pause longer than a few seconds, the product is lost on you and you’d rather turn to another one of the plethora of options available. This happens because of a phenomenon called cognitive overload.

What is cognitive overload?

Cognitive psychology, or the study of perception, problem solving, memory, and other mental processes, defines cognitive load as the effort required for learning information. Cognitive load in design can be thought of as the mental processing you need to use a product. If the amount of information given out exceeds the user’s capacity to process it, there is a cognitive overload in design.

Complicated, busy, confusing interfaces cause cognitive overload. It puts a lot of unnecessary stress on the user’s mind and overwhelms them. The roots of cognitive overload in design lie in educational psychologist John Sweller’s “Cognitive Load Theory, Learning Difficulty, and Instructional Design”. But that’s not important right now. What is important is for you to understand the applicative solutions for avoiding cognitive overload in design.

5 crucial facts about cognitive overload in design 

Here are 5 insightful facts about cognitive overload that you ought to know, no matter what category of design your practice.

  • The working memory doesn’t need any more strain

Working memory can be called the RAM of the human brain. Working memory processes information in real-time, while short-term and long-term memories store it. 

Knowing that an icon with a telephone receiver is the calling menu is because of long-term memory. Remembering how many tabs you have open at the moment is a function of short-term memory. Comprehending the screen that you’re working on at the moment is done by working memory. 

We all have a lot of strain on our working memory already. There’s traffic blaring outside. There are people around saying different things. There are multiple devices with multiple jobs happening simultaneously on each. So if you want your user’s working memory to not take any more strain, make a design that’s simple enough, requires minimal steps, and minimal effort.

  • Overstimulation is a classic case of cognitive overload

Just like you get annoyed when more than one person talks to you at once, your users get annoyed when more than a few elements on the screen are talking to them at once. It takes time to sift through multiple bright colors, animations, CTAs, etc. to finally arrive at what the user really needs. In that time, you have lost your user.

This does not even mean an extreme example such as Lingscars ( go on, search and see for yourself).

Even a simpler web page can be a turn-off because of too much being stacked right on the homepage.

To counter this, focus on diversifying your content formats. Don’t have more than one dynamic element on one page. Have a mix of text, visuals, animations, etc. We think that IMDB does it just right by balancing images with text, and by applying adequate symmetry.

avoiding cognitive overload- example IMDB

  • Hick’s Law is real

We all love options, and we know that our users do as well. But how much is too much? Hick’s Law, or decision paralysis theory, suggests that the more options you provide, the more time users will take to make a decision. It works similar to the point above, where again, there are too many places to go.

So, what do you do when you genuinely have a lot of categories? You simply group them into sub-categories so that users don’t have too much at once to look through, and also get the impression of an organized design. The Amazon website is a perfect example.

amazon product categories

  • Smart UI is actually a simple UI

You might try to create a smart-looking interface with visuals that look different from the usual. However, the more time users take to simply figure out what these elements time, the more cognitive overload you’re causing.

The solution is the stick to common elemental styles and giving them a twist by using brand colors. When we worked on Aqua App, we used regular iconography but customized the colors to stay on-brand.

Aqua apps- divami design labs portfolio

  • Users tend to satisfice

Users have a lot to do in very little time. Attention spans have reduced drastically in the past decade or so, thanks to technology. In this scenario, users want to find the easiest solution to their problems, which may not the best one. To save time, they will continue to use the same solution over and over, even if they know that a better option is available.

So, as emphasized before, don’t try to ‘act smart’ and end up introducing cognitive overload in design. Give the users what they want through the shortest route possible. Compare your UI UX with that of competitors and check if they’re delivering solutions faster.

Final Thoughts

Avoiding cognitive overload is nothing but understanding that your users have a certain mental makeup and adapting to it instead of trying to change it and challenge them.

“Getting in the way of a speeding freight train usually doesn’t end well. It takes a lot of effort to shift the course of something with that much momentum. Rather than forcing people to divert their attention from their primary task, come to where they are.”

—Luke Wroblewski, Product Director at Google

To know how Divami can deliver clean, usable, and intuitive UI UX designs, check out our portfolio.