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Cognitive load on the Internet – why you should think about it when designing your product

Senior Technical Writer
Apr 29, 2014

When we started developing WalkHub based on the initial idea of a step by step, GPS-like online tutorial, we had to think about features, workflow and all the bits and pieces that can make a product awesome or awful (we are aiming for awesome).

Cognitive load and user experience started popping up in conversations about features, and we generally agreed they were important, but we couldn’t fathom just how important they were until reading up on the effects of cognitive overload and hiring a community manager with a psychology degree.

Then we realized we needed to know more of this topic in order to design a product that doesn’t increase the cognitive load of its users. This is what we’ve learned:

Cognitive load on the Internet

By definition, cognitive load is the load related to the executive control of working memory (WM). Theories contend that during complex learning activities the amount of information and interactions that must be processed simultaneously can either under-load, or overload the finite amount of working memory one possesses. All elements must be processed before meaningful learning can continue.

As you can imagine, cognitive load is ever-present on the Internet. A user is working on a spreadsheet, while he gets bombarded with messages on the company chat, he has to schedule a meeting and convert time zones…If he has to use your product, will it increase or decrease his cognitive load?

Users and their ways of doing things

The Internet offers information at a great speed in abundance, and users react by consuming all the information they can in a hurry. They become impatient, need instant gratification, their attention span decreases, they have little time for deep thinking, and they don’t take the time to learn. And this doesn’t even stop when they stand up from their computers: if the cognitive overload has drained their resources, it will impact them offline as well.

A classic book on user behaviour is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, where he explores that —as the title suggest— users don’t really think when using online interfaces, they go with the first available solution that solves their problem. That means that it’s really important to design user interfaces and the user experience so that users can accomplish their intended tasks as directly as possible. Users are not trying to figure out how things work, but simply want to accomplish a task. If it works—be it by simple guessing or something she has learned from previous experience—it will suffice. If it doesn’t work, she will abandon the page.

What about assisting users with user guides and video tutorials?

Let’s be honest: If you want to try out an app you just downloaded, will you follow the manual or will you try to figure out how it works by tapping on icons and buttons on your screen?

User guides and video tutorials are too complex and too sequential to offer users the help they need: They only increase users’ cognitive load because they have to switch back and forth between a window with the documentation (text or video) and the window in which they have the software open. They can either try to interpret and remember several steps at a time or switch back and forth endlessly.

What would be a more natural way to assist users?

We tried to think of a help system that follows the way people actually do stuff online. If you don’t know how to do something and ask someone who does, you probably expect to hear some steps that you have to go through, or even better a quick walkthrough of the process. You surely don’t expect a look into how the software works, what other features there are or any other technical details.

This is how we think online help systems should work: they should be task oriented, and should not include any more information than is absolutely necessary to complete the task at hand: no jargon, no background information, no references to other help topics.

WalkHub is still very much a work in progress, but we are developing its features with all this in mind. We are building the Ultimate User Guide to the Internet, so it’s crucial that it’s something that people will actually use. It’s free (and will stay free), so if you’d like to try it out, we’d be very happy to hear about your experience!

Diána is a Senior Technical Writer at Pronovix. She is specialized in API documentation, topic-based authoring, and contextual help solutions. She writes, edits and reviews software documentation, website copy, user documents, and publications. She also enjoys working as a Program Monitor for NHK World TV and Arirang TV. She graduated as a programmer, then went on earning system administrator and system analyst and designer degrees. She's fluent in English and German, and worked as a translator for a publishing company translating books from German to Hungarian. She's the Hungarian translator of Basecamp. Before becoming a writer, she worked with international clients like Sony Pictures Television, Da Vinci Learning and The Walt Disney Company as a key account manager in integrated marketing campaigns focusing on digital media.


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