The brain has an astonishing ability to process information. We’re constantly problem-solving and making tens of thousands of complex decisions a day. But our brain's seemingly endless capacity has its limitations.
Cognitive psychologists made sense of these limitations between the 1950s and 1980s by modeling how humans process information. Their research led to numerous discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of the way we learn. One important theory developed out of this research was “cognitive load”.
Cognitive load is the amount of working (temporary) memory that our brain can hold at once. Our working memory is the first place we store new information before it enters our long-term memory.
By understanding cognitive load, psychologists were able to identify the limitations of our brains and how we best remember new information. Their findings were impactful to the educational system. It helped teachers structure their lesson plans in ways that improved how their students learned new information.
Understanding cognitive load has improved our communication. It provides us with a set of rules that influence the way we present information in any context, including the internet.
Applying Cognitive Load Theory to Websites
When you visit a new website, your brain begins to process the information you’re presented with. It stores these new bits of information in your working (temporary) memory where space is limited. If the information you’re processing overwhelms your working memory, your cognitive load increases to a frustrating point that may cause you to abandon the site and the reason you visited altogether.
Poorly designed websites increase our cognitive load at a faster rate because the information is presented in a complicated way. We’re either given too many choices or there’s a lack of clarity that causes our brain to work overtime to make sense of what we’re viewing.
The “World’s Worst Website Ever” lives up to its name by maximizing your cognitive load instantly.
While cognitive load is a natural part of the way we process information, site designers, strategists, and copywriters can do their best to minimize its impact by following a few simple rules to create great website experiences.
3 Tips to Reduce Cognitive Load on a Website
Great design can create a memorable experience on a website. These visual elements simplify complicated topics and focus the visitor's attention on what’s important. Content designers can reduce cognitive load by removing unnecessary visual elements and grouping related information to improve clarity.
Let’s explore a few key tactics that reduce cognitive load and why they work.
1. Group Related Information
One way to reduce complexity is to group related information that appears in separate places. For example, the image to the right is a diagram that outlines our mental process. Notice how numbers are used in the diagram and definitions are included under it in a separate box.
In order to understand the meaning of each number, you’re forced to switch your focus between the diagram and the box with definitions. The constant switching increases your cognitive load and minimizes your ability to quickly understand what you’re looking at.
A more efficient way to present the information would be to swap the numbers for the names of each stage (see below).
Great design reduces cognitive load. Image source.
By grouping the information, the complexity has been reduced. We now understand the meaning of each stage in the diagram without having to glance at a separate box.
2. Avoid Creating Blocks of Text
Reading behavior is different on the internet. People are often searching for concise solutions to their problems instead of lengthy explanations. Also, the devices each of us use can vary from person to person. This means text should be presented in a more consumable manner that considers context and visitor behavior.
For example, a long paragraph can appear as a large block of text on a mobile screen. A large block of text can be overwhelming to a reader. Limiting paragraphs to one or two sentences allows the reader to digest smaller amounts of information at a time.
By reducing the complexity of the text, you minimize the amount of attention and focus required to comprehend what is written and, by extension, minimize the cognitive load.
3. Limit the Number of Choices
Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by a restaurant menu with too many choices. When we’re given too many options, our mind experiences decision paralysis. We’re unable to make a decision because we’re overwhelmed with the possibilities that each choice offers.
Much like restaurant menus, navigation menus on websites can be overcomplicated. Including every possible page in a navigational menu would overwhelm a site visitor. Instead, focus on including key areas of a website that can lead a visitor deeper into the site gradually.