Cognitive load and the costs of unnecessary thinking

Por: , julho 20, 2016

We are living tough times and you are in search for a financial control tool. You seek and find dozens of online softwares; the first website announces a free one which allows you to control your whole budget. Hopefully, you click on the button “Try it! It’s quick and simple!”.

You reach a form where all fields are required:

  • Your name? Your gender?
    • Ok…Ok…
  • Your e-mail? Confirm your e-mail?
    • Ok… I’ll just copy and paste…
  • Password? Confirm your password?
    • **********… Wonder if I typed it right both times…
  • Birthdate?
    • Ok… Why do I need to input this anyway?
  • How did you meet us?
    • How was it? Let me see the options in this select box… Oh yeah, I found it on Google five minutes ago…
  • Do you accept our terms and conditions of use?
    • What an ugly little page, I can’t even read it… Screw it, I accept.
  • Do you wish to receive e-mails with our news and special offers?
    • But haven’t even met the product yet, you crazy dudes! Thanks, but no thanks.

Annoyed by the interrogatory, you start to use the software and face an ugly initial screen filled with menus, labels, charts, buttons, among others. After ten minutes searching for where to input your monthly expenses, you give up when the system forces you to input irrelevant information you don’t even remember anymore.
With cursing thoughts, you get back to Google to search for another tool. You will never use this product again neither recommend it (advice against would be more likely).

The reason of abandonment

Why did you give up the product? Was it the stupidly long sign up process? The amount of clicks? The time spent trying to understand the interface?
None of these are the reason.

You gave up because the software made you think too much and waste energy worrying, recalling, judging and deciding on unnecessary things. Only at the sign up, you had to:

  • Worry whether your passwords were matching;
  • Decide whether it was better to retype or copy/paste your e-mail at the confirmation field;
  • Judge the need to inform your birthdate;
  • Recall your birthdate;
  • Recall how you found the software;
  • Judge the design of the conditions and terms of use;
  • And decide whether you want or not to subscribe the newsletter.

Seven boring unecessary toughts.
Have you ever seen problems like these in your projects? Then let me introduce you to some concepts and tips to help you identify and remove these obstacles.

Cognitive load and the volume of thoughts

At some point, you had to open a lot of programs in your computer simultaneously. How did it perform? I’d guess it probably went slow. Our brain is pretty much the same; our capacity of processing runs out when we need to think a lot at the same time, causing fatigue, irritation, anxiety and other negative feelings. The concept of the amount of information the brain can process is known as Cognitive Load or Mental Processing.
In software development, we draw architecture and interaction flows. But have you ever evaluated how an user thinks while interacting with the software? What’s his flow of thought? Would it be possible that you’ve been overloading his head just like you did with the fifteen opened programs in your computer?

The types of cognitive load

Cognitive load comes in two packages, the first one is the Intrinsic Load, which represents the abstract process to reach an objective; opportunities to reduce this kind of load are rare. Example: when buying a car, your intrinsic load is to decide which model you want.
On the other hand, the Extraneous Load represents all extra thoughts which are not directly related to the objective; it distracts and wastes the brain capacity. A good design helps to minimize the extraneous load. Example: when buying a car, you have to shop around, go to a car dealer, talk to a salesman, carry out the car documentation, etc; that’s all extraneous load.
Notice that procedures like carrying out the documentation or even logging into a bankline, although being an extraneous load, are mandatory due to legal or safety issues, and cannot be eliminated.

Mental processing and the types of effort

Everything we do demands thoughts and physical movement, including the use of interfaces. At every design decision we make, consciously or not, we are making trade-off efforts. They can be split into three categories:
Motor/mechanical effort: it’s the brain’s effort to send the command to the body along with the movement itself. In softwares, we are talking about clicks and keyboard typing. That’s the “cheapest” effort in terms of mental processing.
Visual effort: it’s the effort to look and understand interfaces; it’s what makes your eyes burn when trying to read a small font or hurt when looking at a website like this one (stay far from the monitor before opening). The visual effort has an average cost of mental processing.
Cognitive effort: capable of making people give up and spread bad comments about your software, cognitive effort represents things that need to be recalled, analysed, judged, decided on or concerned about. In a nutshell, it is everything that needs to be thought about.
There are two main strategies to reduce cognitive effort:

  • Eliminate unnecessary thoughts;
  • Replace the thinking effort with other types, like visual or motor.

It’s like some famous author who I forgot the name would say: “Nothing is more exhausting than thinking!”.
Whoever says that, worries about the physical act of clicking as if more clicks would cause cramps or something. When installing a program, do you mind clicking five times on the “Next” button? Of course you don’t. The exhausting thing is the confusion of thinking where you would click or navigate without finding what you’re looking for. By itself, the act of clicking won’t hurt the user experience; this has been already proved.
If someone tells you: “the user needs to find what he’s looking for with, at least, two clicks”, do not fall into this trap!
Revealing content in a progressive way is an art. If you wish to know more, start by reading about Progressive Disclosure

Advices in reducing extraneous load

  1. Speak the language your user is thinking: learn the user’s words and communication style. Avoid confusing him because of a word badly placed. Do make interviews and usability tests. The idea is that users feel like talking to a friend while using your software.
  2. Remind the users so they won’t need to: our short-term memory is quickly accessed, but lacks room for information. Repeat the data as much as necessary and avoid the user’s effort of recalling. If you are in doubt about whether some data is necessary at a given time, keep it until it’s proven to not be needed.
  3. Stop cluttering the screen: even in an unconscious way, all visible information will be absorbed and may cause overload at the short-term memory, raising the cognitive effort and, by consequence, the mental fatigue and time spent to execute tasks.
  4. Anticipate unnecessary judgments: I’m not telling you to create a FAQ page, but if you know a question is very common during some specific task, just answer it right away. An example of this is at the Facebook sign up where it explains why the date of birth is required. Don’t give the user silly opportunities to negatively judge your company and product.
  5. Decrease the learning curve: I’m not old, but I’m already tired of seeing genial minimalist interfaces that no user knows how to begin using it. In corporate systems, there is still the option to train employees for specific software usage (I also like to call it waste of money). But for end user consumer products, do you think users would spend hours learning how to use it or simply try the competitors’?


To conclude

While usability tests, cognitive flow evaluations and heuristic analysis contribute a lot to a product, executing this techniques without knowledge of cognitive load could compromise the results. However, these concepts will make it easier for you to look into the interactions deeply and from different perspectives; no techniques needed. Thus humanizing your software and generating more value.

Recommended readings

Jakob Nielsen, Short-Term Memory and Web Usability (article)

Kathryn Whitenton, Minimize Cognitive Load (article)

Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think (book)

Susan Weinschenk, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (book)

Jakob Nielsen, Progressive disclosure (article)

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