Vladimir Puric

User experience / User interaction Design

User experience (UX) and cognitive overload

How to define cognitive overload in UX?

In cognitive psychology cognitive overload is defined as the amount of mental effort within the working memory. Basically, it means that the human brain is able to process and understand limited amount of information within a defined time range. The overload sources may come from:

  • The intrinsic cognitive load
  • The extraneous cognitive load

The first one deals with the inherent complexity of the function (task difficulty) and is imposed through task studying. The latter source signifies the complexity of the manner that the task is introduced to subjects.

Every application is introduced to users and at the same time the UX bears significant cognitive overload. Taking into account the limited capacity of the user working memory, the UX designer should provide the cognitive overload to be below the safety threshold. Should a user be exposed to an excessive amount of information which is chaotically organized, this could lead to a failure in the process of understanding the entire interface.

Cognitive overload and UX

UX is influenced by many factors. Some of these can represent the psychological responses of users, as well as their emotions, reactions and the perception in the interaction with the interface.  The energy spent by a user in the process of understanding and delivering tasks is one of the key factors for defining the entire UX. In any application a user needs at least a minimum of cognitive overload in order to move through the application. Being guided through the minimal cognitive overload, by eliminating the elements which make the interface complex, improves the UX greatly. Finding the right balance in decreasing the number of elements without losing vital information is crucial for any UX designer. One of the best examples where this balance is represented only through showing the essential information the user needs is the Google search engine. All those services and functions which are not related to the essential need for the user remain hidden and are only displayed at the user’s request.

The cognitive overload reasons could be:

  • Unimportant actions

Wasting time on unnecessary steps and tasks influences the user’s patience

  • Too much of the contents

Bombarding the user with too many options and choices increases the user’s indecision. The Hick’s law states that the more number of choices the more time for choice making is made.

  • Format discrepancy

Grammar mistakes, typos, as well as faulty formats of the content in the interface cause the communicational problems making the user reach their goal in a hard way.

  • Obscurity

The lack of the precise, concise and simple interface tends to increase the complexity for the UX and wastes their time.

How to decrease cognitive overload?

  • Use the common patterns in interface (familiarities)

Understanding the mind and needs of the user is crucial for a UX designer. One of the examples could be the so-called position of the “Remember me” for the checkbox next to the sign-in tab. If the position of the tab is dislocated this can make confusion even amongst technologically advanced users.

  • Be aware of how you present and organize the content

Requested content should be shown in adequate formats of communication, as well as shown on time. Adding unnecessary content and visual elements such as pictures, animations, colorful fonts etc. causes the mess in the interface. Disorganized formatting complicates the crucial task of delivering the main message to the user.

  • Stick to the simple design

When it comes to the mobile design it is important to use patterns which are simple to understand. The user’s engaging with mobile applications requires the minimal design. Adding unnecessary elements which do not contribute to the main purpose only keeps the user away from the primary goal.

  • The contents fragmentation (split the contents into smaller fragments)

Splitting text and multimedia into smaller forms improves the readability and accessibility for the user. Better application readability also means a higher level of the content consuming. Splitting the content into various sections according to their relevance decreases the user’s interest.

  • Use icons carefully

Even the most technologically advanced users can get confused by ambiguous and unclear icons. Decoding icons increases the user’s cognitive overload. The user should not spend too much time trying to understand the symbol meaning. However, if the symbol (icon) usage is necessary, accompanying text should be used.