UX Design

Cognitive Psychology And Understanding Of Cognitive Barriers

Cognitive Load

User experience is the most important component when designing a website, an app or a product. UX designers need to develop the structure keeping in mind factors such as usability of features, ease of navigation and reaching the desired goal using minimum mental effort. Cognitive psychology and understanding of cognitive barriers and loads enable designers to create user experiences that maximize conversion and user loyalty.

What are Cognitive Barriers and Cognitive Loads?

The above terms are coined by psychologists to refer to the mental effort required by a user to analyze process and understand information and any barriers or obstacles they encounter while doing so. As a UX designer, understanding this concept helps reach desired goal by eliminating or reducing the obstacles and reducing the pressure on users’ mind to enhance experience. Visual perception is very powerful component of UX design. As a user eye falls on a webpage, mind registers the fonts, images and any other content on the page while looking for the information that helps the user to complete a certain task. For example, while planning a vacation, user will look for drop-downs or text box to enter location, calendar to choose date, etc. These pre-conceived ideas help the designer to use the content effectively so that user can get the job done in a few steps without navigating too much.

Visual perception is very powerful component of UX design

cognitive barriers
Source: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ux-techniques-definitions-user-experience-should-desi-reuben-sealey

The above image illustrates the most common cognitive barriers and loads that help designers develop effective tools for users to achieve their goals. The impact of a design on users’ time and effort is directly proportional to the probability of a user re-visiting the site and referring it to other users.

Cognitive Barriers

When a user encounters an obstacle or some sort of dis-fluency while performing an action, the human mind perceives it as additional effort to complete a task. For example, while taking feedback for a service or a product, there is a series of multiple choice questions. The user answers these questions using a mouse and choosing one option out of 4 given. However, at the end of the survey, user is given a text box to fill his opinion about the product or the thing he likes the best. In such scenario, user is forced to leave the mouse and instead use the keyboard to type a response. If the text box is optional, most users will leave it blank and submit the form. However, if the text-box is compulsory, then the user has to choose between providing feedback or foregoing the entire survey.

This is the decision making point, where user needs to make a choice and is a potential barrier to feedback collection.

If feedback collection is vital to the company, then the UX designer must think of an alternative way of getting a typed response so that the company gets more number of surveys filled. There are number of ways to achieve this, let’s have a look at the cognitive barriers that can be removed to get more number of feedback forms filled:

Reduce the number of steps

If the feedback form has the question and text-box as the first thing at the top of the page, it is more likely that the user will fill the text-box. Placing the text-box at the top of the feedback page will give user the perception of ease while filling it.

Time required filling the survey

Once the text-box is filled, it is only a matter of choosing the radio button or checking the box in order to finish the survey form. This takes less time and mental effort and hence allows the user more ease of use and satisfaction.

Complexity of steps

Survey form questions should be easy to understand and straight forward. It does not mean that only simple questions should be asked, the content needs to be modified without losing the quality of the meaning.

Cognitive Load

The pressure that users feel during navigation and usage of a site to complete a task is the cognitive load. The processing power of the human brain reduces as the information is overloaded. Users may feel confused, or overwhelmed which leads to negative user experience. Especially if the user is visually challenged, understanding the content will require additional help. Some blogs have voiceover technology that can read the content to the user. So, why not try this out to ease user experience? UX designers must work towards reducing the cognitive load by following certain principles of cognitive psychology.

cognitive load
Source: https://learningsnippets.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/clt.jpg

The pressure that users feel during navigation and usage of a site to complete a task is the cognitive load

Limit the number of choices

When a user is presented with choices while making a decision, it slows down the decision making process. Research shows that human brain prefers to choose the easy route rather than choosing difficulty. Choices are important as it makes the user feel more powerful and yet too many choices might encourage the user to deter the decision completely.

Reduce Visual Clutter

Adding animation, images and too many colors and interesting fonts on a page adds unnecessary sensory overload for the user. Most of these objects provide no real meaning and distract the user from the real purpose of reaching a webpage. De-clutter your webpages so that user can easily find the focal point of the page without wasting much time.

Familiarity and Similarity

Designing an intuitive webpage requires understanding of users mind. There are certain aspects of a user interface that are already registered in the users’ mind as they are repetitive tasks that provide similar functionality regardless of the platform. For example, a user will always expect the ‘forgot password’ button to appear under the username and password text boxes. Placing the button at another location will add confusion and lead to user dissatisfaction.

Human mind is a complex mechanism and it is not possible to achieve the desired user action-by following a set of steps. Different people may react differently even in unique situations and circumstances. Having said that, cognitive barriers and cognitive loads ease user experience if well understood and implemented. UX designers must keep the above laws in mind while designing information architecture for an ideal user experience.

Research into user behavior before developing your brand content strategy helps avoid poor user experience.

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About the author


Manoj is a designer/front-end developer with 8+ years of experience. Other than front-end coding, he loves to write on design trends.