Cognitive Load/Overload in UX

Cognitive Load/Overload in UX

We are humans and need some time, clarity of perception, and focus on processing the information when working on a task. The concentration increases, and we can complete the project without any strain. However, if there are too many tabs open in our heads, we might not be able to think or reason nor have a clear perspective; hence, we might become unable to accomplish even a single task.

The same happens when operating a complicated user design that causes cognitive load/overload.

What is cognitive load (overload) in UX?

Cognitive load is the nervous tension a user faces when they want to do something but cannot because they have to think too much before doing it.

In terms of user experience (UX) design, cognitive load is the amount of pressure or strain that users face when they want to get something done on a website or mobile app. 

They have to overthink and put a lot of mental effort and energy into completing the task. The load that puts the users at pause to figure out what to do next is cognitive load/overload.

There is a strong correlation between the UX design of a mobile app and the concept of cognitive load. The goal of a UX designer should be to utilize the minimum mental energy and effort of the user in operating the mobile app. The interface should be designed with a strong focus on its minimalistic and simple design to make it user-friendly.

If the cognitive load is high, the nervous tension is also high. To keep the cognitive load low, you want to build a simple design that is quick to grasp. Reducing cognitive overload for a better user experience is essential to make a mobile app user-friendly.

We find a strong correlation between mobile app design and cognitive load. To support this statement, we have strong evidence.

You see, with the advancement in modern technology, the success of an app or website depends not only on what it does but also on how it interacts with its users. If it is user-friendly, it appeals to its customers, and they easily get their job done, having a great operating experience.

The interface has to be modest but unobtrusive not to tire its users mentally.

Multistore Model of Memory​


The multistore model is the theory of human memory proposed by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968. According to them, memory travels in linear form through three registers such as

  • Sensory memory
  • Short term memory
  • Long term memory

The memory flows through these storage channels. Each of these stores has its own features and characteristics when it comes to encoding, capacity, and duration.

What are encoding, capacity, and duration in terms of memory?

Encoding is the process in which the information is changed to be able to store it in the memory. It is possible to process information in three ways:

  • Visual (picture)
  • Acoustic (sound)
  • Semantic (meaning)

Capacity is the amount of information that can be stored.

Duration is the period of time information can last in the memory stores.

Sensory Memory:

The information processing in sensory memory is done via senses, and the process of encoding takes place before storing the information. Sensory memory metrics are as follows:

  • Encoding: sense specific (e.g., different stores for each sense)
  • Capacity: all sensory experience (v. larger capacity)
  • Duration: ¼ to ½ seconds

Our senses are continuously receiving information, and not all of it is necessary to store. So most of the sensory information does not get any attention and goes ignored. Or, at the maximum, less important information is only stored for half a second before it’s forgotten.

It’s interesting to note that the sensory register is modality-specific, as whichever sense is registered will correlate with what it is used for. For instance, sight is registered as sight.

The sensory register receives the information from 5 senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. All of our senses have sensory memory systems, but Atkinson- Shiffrin model only relates to sight and sound, known as iconic and echoic.

The sensory storehouse has a large capacity but a very short duration because not all the information it receives is useful or requires processing.

The sensory register works when our mind pays attention to something. And it is attention or focus that helps us remember things. If we focus on one of the sensory registers, then the data is stored and transferred to short-term memory.

Short-Term Memory:

  • Encoding: auditory
  • Capacity: 7+/-2 items
  • Duration: 30 seconds

If the information is attended in the sensory register, it is transferred to short-term memory for temporary storage. The duration of short-term memory is around 30 seconds. In this register, the information is usually encoded visually (as an image), acoustically (as a sound), or, less often, semantically (through its meaning).

However, breaking larger items into smaller chunks can increase the capacity. Moreover, rehearsing the information or repeating it verbally or mentally can increase the duration of short-term memory. Short-term memory can be stored for a minute, but the information gets lost if maintenance rehearsal does not happen.

This type of remembering involves without any focus or thinking with reason about it. You simply have to cram the information. Repeating the information at regular intervals renews or recalls it in the memory to retain it for longer periods beyond 30 seconds.

If the information is repeated enough times and retains in the short-term memory, it is transferred to long-term memory. Otherwise, it is lost through decay.

Long-Term Memory:

  • Encoding: Mainly semantic but can also be visual and acoustic
  • Capacity: Unlimited
  • Duration: Unlimited

According to Atkinson- Shiffrin, learning the information quickly through repeating or rehearsing techniques can transfer short-term memory to long-term memory. LTM aka, long-term memory, has a lifelong duration and a large capacity. This is why we do not run out of space to store information for the long term.

The information in long-term memory is encoded semantically. It means that you cannot just cram the information or repeat it at intervals to remember for a lifetime. You want to understand the meanings and think with reason about that very information to store it for the longest in your memory.

The thing is, when one makes sense of the information, it automatically enters into LTM.

Information once stored in LTM can be reversed to STM when needed. Rehearsal is done in a manner to link new information with meanings and is stored with already present information in LTM.

Working Memory​

Memory is categorized in different ways. William James in 1980 classified memory as ‘primary and secondary memory.’

Primary memory refers to events that have just happened. This is temporary and has a shorter capacity, which is now referred to as short-term memory. At the same time, secondary memory stands for the long-term memory of an event that happened some time ago. Secondary memory is termed long-term memory and is permanent as well as long-lasting.

For temporary storage, two theoretical models have been presented, i.e., short-term memory and working memory. Many researchers claim these two memories as two names for one memory and use short-term memory and working memory as alternate words for transient and temporary information. The difference lies between maintenance and maintenance plus the manipulation of information.

What is working memory?​

WM aka, working memory, is our ability to use, implement, put into practice, and manipulate information by recalling our memory for a period of time. For example, after completing a task, recalling the process’s steps is working memory or the one currently in use. However, short-term memory can be differentiated by the fact that it is only stored in our memory for a short period of time.

Similarly, your ability to keep the address of your destined location in mind while still listening to the instructions to go there is again an example of working memory.

Working memory capacity can hold up to 7 chunks in adults and varies according to how much information you can remember and recall. Working memory has a limited space storehouse where information is stored for short intervals while also following the instructions.

According to the Baddeley-Hitch model of working memory, there are two sub-components:

  • The place where you store visual and spatial information, also called visuospatial sketchpad used to navigate information.
  • The place where you record auditory information and navigate spoken and written material, also called phonological loop. It consists of the phonological store that holds the information in the speech-based form and an articulatory control process that processes speech, rehearses, and stores the information from the phonological store.

Lastly, there is a third component

  • Central executive that controls and mediates the rest of the two components.

The last component is the main part of this model that’s responsible for processing information, focusing attention, setting goals, and making decisions.

So mainly, the central executive is the central control system, while phonological and visuospatial loops are responsible for storage.

According to the working memory model, the central executive is the boss system as it deals with cognitive tasks such as problem-solving and mental arithmetic.  

Cognitive Load​

Adding a human touch to all the machines and technology makes it easier to interact and deal with. The ease of operating a device, mobile app, or website is all about dealing with lesser strain. Now, this is what makes modern technology successful and handy. The development and UX design is created in a manner to reduce cognitive load and interact well with the human psyche.

When working on a task, operating a device, or using a mobile app, our brain is the main component to interact, think, reason, and process the information. Additionally, there is a link between interacting, thinking, reasoning, and processing the information that needs to be maintained. However, if there’s even a single missing link, the mind gets agitated and does not get a smooth user experience, generally termed as cognitive load.

To keep the cognitive load to a minimum, you need to develop Natural User Interfaces (NUI).

What is Natural User Interface?​

Natural User Interface, aka, NUI is the user interaction with modalities such as touch, gestures, or voice. The interfaces that are easy, fluent, and natural are incorporated into your design.

You see, for a long time, the UX designs have been developed per the technology norms and set of arbitrary procedures. Gradually, it has gotten altered as devices, technology, computers, and other machines are now adapted to our needs and preferences to ease us. Therefore, we can now use technology and devices with the utmost ease and comfort of operation.

The user interfaces are now more natural and direct, thus going next level with providing the ultimate user experience. As a developer, you want to provide your users with fun, comfort, and great interaction. Such a user experience helps you get your users back time and again. It generates revenue and takes your business to the heights of success.      

Categories of Cognitive Load​

There is a certain amount of data that humans can store and process. The larger the amount of information, the lesser are the chances of retaining it.

There are different categories of cognitive load such as,

  •  Intrinsic
  •  Extraneous
  •  Germane

Effective learning and understanding of the cognitive load types require you to manage intrinsic load, optimize extraneous load, promote germane load. Here’s a detailed overview of the three cognitive load types to manage it well.

The cognitive load theory focuses on how to simplify the processing of any information by users.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load​

Intrinsic cognitive load is the number of elements that need to be processed simultaneously, making the task even more difficult. Some tasks are inherently hard from others and require more effort to gain mastery over them, so they cause intrinsic cognitive load.

This type of load is concerned with the nature and type of task. If the user interacts with more elements at once, then the intrinsic load will be higher compared to when the element interactivity is low.

Since the difficulty level of the task is inherent, it is not possible to change it. However, still, a lot can be done to reduce the load. For instance, the task can be managed according to the learner’s ability, prior knowledge, learning capacity, as well as aptitude.

According to John Sweller, who developed the Cognitive Load Theory, “intrinsic cognitive load can only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself.” You can use the plain, less distracting, clear font to make it legible, eventually, reduce the load.

Likewise, you can break the task into smaller steps to reduce intrinsic cognitive load.  

Extraneous Cognitive Load​

Extraneous cognitive load is the way the information is presented along with distracting or irrelevant information that makes the learner hard to focus. The learning task is blocked because of disturbing external measures with unimportant information, making the task the least effective. For instance, the advertisements on an online web page prove pretty disturbing plus irrelevant at the same time, thus increasing extraneous cognitive load.

Another interesting example is of a learning topic where the explanation does not match or fully support the definition of that topic, making it all very confusing. The ineffective teaching methods that further complicate the matters, tasks, projects, mobile apps, devices increase the extraneous cognitive load.

You can certainly optimize extraneous load in a number of ways. Presenting the information in a clear, appropriate, and relevant manner helps reduce extraneous load. Similarly, try to make the information less complicated and more engaging to the user’s intention.  

Extraneous load is useful for some but not for others, so it can be increased and optimized accordingly.

Germane Cognitive Load​

This type of load is desirable as it results from the constructive method of handling and processing information that adds to the information, which means that this type of load helps in learning other information and new skills.

The first-time experience of changes and differences while learning the information causes the germane cognitive load, which is a positive sign. It is produced as a result of learning new experiences to be able to forecast what to expect in the future.

Germane load results in patterns of thoughts and behaviors to categorize the information. The more we practice, the better behavioral patterns we develop. For example, an institute’s emergency drill allows us to systematically organize the information, producing germane load to learn how to react and behave in an actual situation.

The germane load can be promoted by efficient methods.

5 Ways to Avoid Cognitive Load for Improved User Experience​

Cognitive load is the amount of strain produced as a result of complex UX design or interface. Minimizing cognitive load is essential for an improved user experience. As a designer, your job is to develop simple, minimalist designs for lesser nervous tension.

Here are five ways to avoid cognitive load for improved user experience.

1. Recognition is more important than recall on the menu tab​

The UX design should be such that when a user reaches the menu tab, they must not stress their brain to focus on what to do next. They should not recall or remind themselves of the next step; instead, recognition is what matters for a cognitive user experience.  

Cognitive psychology in interaction design needs to be understood before developing the UX design. The cognitive user interface should be direct and engaging to make the user explore as much as possible.

2. Chunking​

Chunking is one important strategy to avoid cognitive load. In this methodology, the user/learner breaks larger units into smaller ones that are easier to remember hence reduce cognitive load. Chunking UX can help identify and recognize complicated designs to improve user experience.

Understanding cognitive psychology UX is essential to present information that is used intended and has a human touch to it. The computing devices that are user intended require lesser mind effort and energy.

3. Know the Mental Models​

The multistore understanding model of memory is important to minimize cognitive load to maximize usability and the learning process. The lesser the cognitive load greater is the user’s ability to find and complete tasks.

4. Avoid Vague Interface​

Applying cognitive psychology to user interface design is highly appreciative as a vague interface complicates and disturbs the user experience. Avoiding visual clutter and keeping the design to the point, and directly provide a great user experience.

Also, a vague and cluttered interface makes the design redundant, meaningless, and irrelevant.

5. Avoid Unnecessary Actions and Choice Paralysis​

Once a user is on an app, they want to do the job as soon as possible. After landing on the UX design, they prefer to avoid unnecessary actions because of little time to do the job. If the user is unable to choose and decide the next step, they are most likely to get a high cognitive load.

To avoid such a bad user experience, keep the options simple to avoid choice paralysis. Such a cognitive load might make the user lose interest and leave the task.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, we are human and cannot afford distractions when operating a device, completing a task, and learning the information. As a UX builder, you want to keep the load to a minimum to maximize the user experience. Natural user interface (NUI) helps achieve this goal.

The types of cognitive load are essential to understand obstructions in accomplishing a great user experience. The user finds such designs interesting and exciting, eventually making it a fun experience. So the user keeps coming back and builds a mutual relationship where both parties benefit from each other.

To learn more about developing a user-friendly mobile app, you can also enjoy our blog post called “How to Ensure A Great UX Design.”


Berkem Peker

Berkem Peker is a growth strategist at Storyly. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics from the Middle East Technical University. He/him specializes in growth frameworks, growth strategy & tactics, user engagement, and user behavior. He enjoys learning new stuff about data analysis, growth hacking, user behavior.

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