What is cognitive load and how does it impact product design?

Cognitive Load is a term that originates from the field of psychology. It refers to the amount of mental effort used in the working memory of a person.  We all have limits to the amount of cognitive load that we can reasonably sustain. And it's understood that a large amount of cognitive load makes it more difficult for people to learn and remember important details or to make decisions and complete tasks.

It's important to consider the impact of cognitive load when designing products and systems.  In fact, cognitive load is of paramount importance for creating a strong user experience (UX).  Designers understand that presenting a user with too many options and features can rapidly increase cognitive load. Similarly, considering the path or flow through an application is important in order to manage the amount of cognitive load experienced.

The use of standard screen controls and icons such as drop-downs, toggles, sliders, and buttons is one way to decrease cognitive load since there is less for the user to learn when first experiencing the application.  This is particularly important as it relates to standard icons such as those used to indicate a menu on a mobile app.  While custom controls or icons may increase the perceived interest and intrigue of an application, it adds a significant amount of cognitive load to the user experience.  

Cognitive load is usually assessed via designer intuition.  Does this feel mentally taxing to the user?  But researchers have developed more precise and definitive ways of measuring the perceived mental effort of cognitive load. By measuring pupil responses of users of the system, designers can clearly detect when users' minds are being taxed.  Heavy cognitive load has a direct and negative effect on how well a user learns and uses a new application.

Chris Adams
LinkedIn Profile

posted @ Monday, November 13, 2017 1:03 PM by Chris Adams