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Design principles to reduce user's cognitive load

Design principles to reduce user's cognitive load

Design principles to reduce user's cognitive load

Have you ever wondered why most websites and applications have similar structures and usability? Because they have what we call conventions.

Google's Material Design, for example, which is the guideline used to create app interfaces, maintains the pattern of usage and visual understanding of graphic elements in an intuitive way among Android devices so that regardless of the app, we have the experiences of similar usage.

This is because we are conditioned to use different systems in similar ways. As it is known, we have cognitive abilities that help us to avoid efforts when performing tasks based on experiences already lived with other interfaces / systems.

That's the basic principle of creating interfaces: don't reinvent the wheel when everyone else is already riding in a car, right?

What Causes Cognitive Load

Cognitive load happens when we need to learn something new to perform a new or the same task. To understand how to decrease cognitive load, we first need to understand what causes it. There are 3 factors:

  • Lots of choices
  • Require thought
  • Lack of clarity

Any of these factors require the user to have mental resources to understand the context. But actually it doesn't help at all. Based on this beginning, let's understand how to reduce cognitive load.

The obvious isn't always obvious.

Avoid unnecessary elements

You know how it is, less is more. Yes. This in terms of interfaces counts a lot. Anything that is not helpful for the user to reach their goal is a reason for cognitive processing. Avoid excessive colors, heavy typography or any other element that does not add functionality. Simplicity is very difficult to achieve.


Use conventions

If your user uses Android apps, it doesn't make sense to put iOS elements, right? Use visual and functional resources to give the user ways to perceive that it is usable based on other experiences they have already had. The features present in digital products help the user to have a shorter learning curve when he is going to use something new to perform some task.


Eliminate unnecessary tasks

If the user has to do more tasks without being really useful, you will contribute to the cognitive load. Although it is not possible to reduce all tasks, always remember that as in design it is always said:  less is more. If you instead of 3 clicks, the user gives 2 to perform the task, it will be better. A simple example is a form. If the user can enter the zip code and the system automatically fills in the street name, city, etc... it will thank you for it.


Minimize Choices

As stated earlier, user memory is limited. Choice paralysis is triggered when you have a lot of cognitive load. The fewer choices, the less cognitive load. Avoid this type of load, especially on forms, navigations, and drop-down menus. Applications like Tinder work very well with this principle, offering only one  match option at a time.

Too many options. Too long.

Readability is important

The typography must be aesthetically pleasing and appropriate to the design it is being applied to. Good design is invisible and this ensures that when the user is reading, they are free of distractions and better understand the content being delivered. Typography is a vital part of the design process and its application must always be taken as a priority, after all, it will communicate 95% of the message to the user.


Use Icons Wisely

As mentioned earlier, conventions are based on past experience. Icons too. Facebook, Twitter, Play, Pause, Share, etc…have no standards, but are globally recognized based on past experience. When using icons, using text labels can help to reduce ambiguity and better communicate the meaning, as it may not be globally recognized by the user.



These principles will help the user to be less distracted, reduce cognitive load, optimize time and achieve their goal in a product or service.

And if you believe it's useful, show your love and share it with more people. Knowledge does not take up space ❤

This post was originally inspired by the Marvel team.

About Flavio Santana

Senior UX/UI Designer focused on how software products “function” and how users move through the experience to accomplish their goals. Deep experience partnering with other team members to develop the strategy and design for all required product features. International and domestic experience in countries, including Brazil, France, Canada, Argentina, Malaysia, Montenegro, and Peru. Clients include Renault (France), LG (Brazil), Brasil Pré-Pagos (Brazil), SESC (Brazil), Guaraná (Canada), and Matera (Brazil). My role is focused on skills like: * Information Architecture (sitemaps, taxonomy, etc…); * Interface Design (design systems, apps, websites, icons, etc…); * Wireframes & Prototypes (low, medium and high fidelity); * Flow chart & users scenarios; * Front-end development (HTML & CSS); * Usability tests; * Data Analysis (heat map, A/B tests, web performance); * Interaction design (micro-interactions using Flinto or Principle);

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