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Design Principles for Reducing Cognitive Load

Jon Yablonski
November 11, 2015

Design Principles for Reducing Cognitive Load

Every time you visit a website, a process of learning is initiated in the brain. Whether it’s the navigation, layout, or that auto-rotating image slider on the homepage, your brain has to learn how to use the site while keeping track of the reason you came there in the first place. The mental effort required during this time is called cognitive load. Now the catch: the working memory in which this information is processed and stored is limited. Your brain begins to slow down or even abandon the task at hand when it receives more information than it can handle. Although cognitive load isn’t entirely avoidable, designers must strive to manage and accommodate these limits.

Jon Yablonski

November 11, 2015
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  1. Design Principles for
    Reducing Cognitive Load
    UX Methodologies 1/1
    Jon Yablonski

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  2. 2
    Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load
    What is
    Cognitive Load?

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  3. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 3
    Every time you visit a website or opens an app, a
    process of learning is initiated in the brain. Whether
    it’s the navigation, layout, or that auto-rotating image
    slider on the homepage, your brain has to learn how
    to use the site while keeping track of the reason you
    came there in the first place.

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  4. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 4
    The mental effort required during this time
    is called cognitive load.

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  5. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 5
    Much like a computer, the human brain has a limited
    amount of processing power. When new information
    that is coming in exceeds your ability to process it in
    working memory, your brain begins to slow down,
    which in turn affects performance. This inevitably
    leads to frustration or even task abandonment.

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  6. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 6
    Cognitive load isn’t entirely avoidable, but we as
    designers must strive to manage and accommodate
    these limits by understanding them.

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  7. 7
    Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load
    What Causes
    Cognitive Load?

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  8. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 8
    To understand how to reduce cognitive load, we must
    first understand what causes it. Generally speaking,
    the causes of cognitive load can be traced back to three
    main factors, each of which will requires processing
    and takes up mental resources that doesn’t actually help
    users understand the content.
    1. Too Many Choices
    2. Too Much Thought Required
    3. Lack of Clarity

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  9. 9
    Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load
    How Can We Reduce
    Cognitive Load?

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  10. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 10
    01/07
    Avoid Unnecessary Elements
    Like everything in design, less is more. Any element
    that isn’t helping the user achieve their goal is
    working against them because they must process
    it and store it in working memory, alongside the
    things that will help them. Avoiding excessive colors,
    imagery, design flourishes, or layouts that don’t add
    value is crucial. But simplicity comes with a caveat:
    don’t overvalue it at the cost of clarity.
    Related:
    The 5 Most Common Design Mistakes
    UX Myths

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  11. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 11
    02/07
    Leverage Common Design Patterns
    By leveraging common design patterns when it makes
    sense, you are giving the user familiar elements
    which they already understand. This in turn reduces
    the amount of learning they need to do, thus enabling
    them to move right along and get closer to achieving
    their goal.
    Related:
    Design Patterns on CodePen
    Mental Models

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  12. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 12
    03/07
    Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks
    Anywhere you are asking the user to read content,
    remember information or make a decision
    contributes to cognitive load. Whenever possible, it is
    good to shift these tasks away from the user and make
    it easier for them to stay focused on their goal. While
    it isn’t possible to remove all tasks, there is usually an
    opportunity to offload some task by setting defaults
    that can be edited, or leveraging previously entered
    information. Some companies are even taking this a
    step further with anticipatory design.
    Related:
    Anticipatory Design

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  13. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 13
    04/07
    Minimize Choices
    As previously mentioned, our working memory is
    limited. When confronted with too many choices,
    cognitive load will increase due to decision paralysis.
    It is important that we minimize the choices the user
    must make at any given moment, especially in places
    such as navigation, forms, and drop-downs.
    Related:
    Decision Paralysis

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  14. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 14
    05/07
    Display Choices as a Group
    When choices are split into separate groups and
    hidden, users often mistake the options that are
    visible as the complete group. This means that users
    are likely to never find the additional choices, which
    not only limits what is available to them, but also
    makes it more difficult to decide on which option to
    select because they are not aware of the alternatives.
    Therefore, it is best to eliminate the resulting cognitive
    load by always displaying choices as a group.
    Related:
    Cognitive & The Intristic User Experience

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  15. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 15
    06/07
    Strive for Readability
    Making our content legible isn’t enough — we need
    to make it readable. This means our typography must
    be aesthetically pleasing, appropriate for the content
    and easy to read while design remains relatively
    invisible. By doing this, we can ensure there are as
    little distractions as possible for the user, which
    results in a better understanding of the content by
    the user.
    Related:
    How We Read

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  16. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 16
    07/07
    Use Iconography with Caution
    Research has shown that iconography can be hard
    to memorize and, contrary to intuition, can increase
    cognitive load by requiring mental processing to
    infer meaning or recognize. While universally
    understood icons work well (ie. print, close, play/
    pause, reply, tweet, share on Facebook), most are
    subject to the user’s understanding based on previous
    experience (in which there is no standard). When
    leveraging the power of iconography, it is best to
    accompany them with text labels to communicate the
    meaning and reduce ambiguity.
    Related:
    Icon Usability

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  17. Design Principles For Reducing Cognitive Load 17
    By following these principles, you can drastically
    reduce the user’s cognitive load and ensure their
    attention isn’t being wasted on elements that do not
    help them. It is important to remember that the user
    has a goal, whether it is to buy a product, understand
    something or simply to learn more about the content.
    The less they have to think about what they need to
    do to achieve their goal, the more likely it is they will
    achieve it.

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