How Heavy is Your Cognitive Load?

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Design Psychology has many facets to it but understanding them helps us think about “user experience” from a human centered perspective. This is helpful as it maximizes our chances at making a great UI/UX and human centered interactive design. One of the concepts that informs this approach is that of cognitive load.

Cognitive load refers to the working memory resources a person has while working to complete a task. The VIMM model, which I heard about from an interview with Thomas Watkins explains 4 things to keep in mind when thinking about cognitive load.

  1. Visual Load – This refers to the things you see when looking at something like a screen. Things to avoid so you don’t increase visual load are clutter (too much on a screen), long ungrouped content, and too many calls to action.
  2. Intellectual Load – The amount of thinking a user has to do when interacting with your application is also important. Hear the idea is to avoid inconsistencies in behavior of objects, missing navigation, bad copy and content that lacks context.
  3. Memory Load – Don’t overestimate the amount of complexity people will put up with. Their memory will often not perform well enough. Avoid complex processes, workflows that require memorization (as opposed to intuition), and lack of transparency in where the user is within a task or workflow.
  4. Motor Load – This refers to the amount of actual action a user has to take at any one time or to complete a task. Stay away from designs that required too many steps/clicking, requiring very precise hovering or positioning, and excessive HCI switching (meaning the need to go back and forth between mouse, keyboard or other peripherals to complete something.

Naturally there are tradeoffs to these concepts and as Einstein famously said, “[you can] make everything as simple as possible but no simpler”. But by keeping these concepts (and many others) in mind you increase your chances at creating a great design and ultimately a great user experience.

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