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#14 - Cognitive Load theory

Author face
Article written by
Juan Jesús Millo

Types of Cognitive Load

How does our brain's processing work? Is it the same as a computer? What capacity do we have?

Let's imagine that we are using several software and our computer is not able to process such an amount of data, what can we do? We can, on the one hand, reduce the number of tasks that our programs are performing, or increase the processing capacity, improving the parts of our computer. If we make the analogy with our brain, the second option would be unfeasible, at least, for now, we are not able to increase the memory slots that our brain is capable of working simultaneously.

But, the first option, the reduction of tasks, we can make it. When we are working with many tasks, what do we sacrifice? We sacrifice the performance of individual tasks, we find it much more difficult to process the information in each of them, we reduce the understanding of details or, directly, we abandon the task we are performing, as we feel overwhelmed.

Cognitive load as a mental resource

Here comes the concept of cognitive load, which is nothing more than the available mental resources we need to complete a certain task, although in the past it was used to refer to the amount of mental resources we need to learn something, but both definitions are perfect for us, or don't you have to learn how a navigation system works or the architecture of the product you are using?

Honorable mention for Nielsen's fourth heuristic, conventions and standards. In the end, we'll always reflect what we've seen in other products and how they're used to the new product we're going to use, so that our brain doesn't have to process all the information from scratch. This would be the base information we start with, but we have to add the extra information to complete the task we have as a goal, so it would be on one hand the base (standards) plus the specific one (task).

Going back to what I was saying, you can't buy more processing for your brain (hopefully), so who is responsible for minimizing this? We, the designers, but how?

For this case, we can divide the cognitive load in two, the intrinsic and the irrelevant one.

Definition of cognitive load

The intrinsic cognitive load is the effort we must make to absorb the information and be able to use and keep it, while the irrelevant is the extra information we don't need to understand the context or perform a task, being this the one we must minimize as much as possible reducing the visual pollution, or the irrelevant and redundant information.

We can also minimize this cognitive load by designing according to the users' mental models or by offloading and facilitating the tasks to be performed (remembering priority information, self-filling fields, images...).

It is totally impossible to eliminate it completely, but these details will make us have more memory slots for important actions, such as decision making, since a cognitive overload negatively affects discoverability and completion rates.

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