Words&Such

Ramblings about Design, UX, Process, Code... basically where my thoughts go when nobody else is listening. Est. 2009.

Considering Cognitive Load

Minimalist bloggers boost the virtues of living with less, buying from farmer's markets, buying smaller houses, committing to doing less. The battle cry of "Stop stressing over your day job and quit keeping up with the Joneses!" is powerful. I have to agree, living a pared-down, curated life sounds appealing.

What does minimalism have to do with the web? Quite a lot. In this case, the ethos of minimalism is directly tied to Cognitive Load. Designers should avoid visual clutter, build on or extend existing mental models, and offload tasks / set smart defaults. The fewer decisions you have to make, the more likely you are to complete a task. The fewer choices you have to pick from, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your purchase.

Cognitive Load is constantly on my mind when working on large projects. Whether in web apps, eCommerce sites, or complex mobile apps, every item on the screen adds to the cognitive load. The effects of a heavy cognitive load are multiplied by forcing the user to make too many decisions at once. Look at eCommerce check-out-pages from 10-15 years ago and today. The trend of everything being in a single screen (for sake of limiting factors like slow internet connections, additional server requests, poor IA/UX) has shifted to now being almost exclusively a multistep process.

Look no further than Amazon for great examples of avoiding Cognitive Load. Adding attributes like "featured" and "Prime Eligible" helps narrow down the massive amount of items you see. Filtering down by category is standard, but being able to look at your purchase history and re-purchase the same item easily is new. Amazon also has pioneered the one-click purchase, using saved credit card and shipping information. Their bluetooth-enabled "easy" buttons even let you order household supplies - no computer, phone, or tablet necessary.

This being said, web giants like Expedia, Amazon, and eBay will never be ideal. Someone booking an exclusive resort vacation from a handful of curated options on Jetsetter immediately feels different than someone that had to use 10 filters on Expedia to see the same data, plus 300 reviews, and a star rating, and a user rating, and a best-price guarantee, walk score, and on and on. For many users, the mere fact that thousands of other destinations exist and are available during the same time period plants a seed of doubt, called Decision Fatigue. This extra data, this noise added to the decision process... "Did I pick the right resort? Is there a better deal? Is there a more luxurious place I can go instead?" ...and the amount of time required to actually research each of these seemingly simple metrics is quite exhausting. Give me a handful of simple options, with a single rating for price and for quality. That's all you really need.

At the end of the day, any website will never be perfect and a user journey can always be improved. Let this be my PSA for everyone to consider cognative load when you're making your interface decisions. Simplify your users lives... if you don't need it in your interface to complete a task, let it go!

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