Good UI Has a Lot to Do with Reducing Cognitive Loads. Here’s why!

Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

Ever had anyone given you unsolicited advice about how you shouldn’t try to do too many things at once?

Well, perhaps, you should’ve listened. For instance, have you ever tried to whip yourself an omelet while brewing a cup of coffee while reading the morning paper and failed miserably at all three?

It’s not just because you binge-watched Bridgerton till 3 am; and now you’re rushing to get to work. It’s also because the brain can only do so much.

UX and UI designers. Take note.

Cognitive Load Theory states that since the brain can only do so many things simultaneously. We should be deliberate in what we ask it to do.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive load is the amount of information that’s stored in our working memory at a single time. The theory is credited to John Sweller, who published a paper in the Cognitive Science journal in 1988.

Since our working memory has a limited capacity, instructions should be designed as such to not overload the brain with activities that don’t contribute to learning.

Think of the brain as a computer.

What happens when you have a million tabs and programs running simultaneously? The inevitable. It slows down.

In UX design, the cognitive load thrust upon the user by an interface is the amount of mental activity required to operate the system. A quick way to increase a user’s cognitive load is by bombarding them with too many choices.

Don’t. Do. That.

Cognitive Load Types
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Types of Cognitive Load

Before we learn how to minimize cognitive loads to maximize usability, let’s learn about the three types of cognitive loads:

1. Intrinsic cognitive load

Think of it this way – no matter how easy you try to make something or simplify it, there will come a point beyond which you can’t go further. What remains is the inherent difficulty of a task.

Suppose you’re learning to swim. You hire the best trainer there is, read books, and prep yourself the best way you can — all before trying it out in a pool. When you get to the pool, you realize there is still much to learn.

In UX terms, it’s the amount of time and energy people need to process new information while following the task at hand with your product.

2. Extraneous cognitive load

This is the working memory of learners as they interact with instructions. In UI design and interfaces, mental resources are used to deal with problems that are unrelated to the task at hand.

Here’s a quick example. Ever been roped into a discussion about the difficulties of UX design but spent 45 minutes hearing someone drawl on about their poodle? You’re left wondering – what is the point of this?

The effort our brain makes to follow the conversation is the extraneous cognitive load.

3. Germane cognitive load

This load refers to the work that goes into creating a permanent store of knowledge or a schema. Schemas in psychology refer to mental concepts. Doing so accelerates the learning process.

Germane load refers to the mental resources devoted to acquiring and automating schemata in long-term memory.”

What we need to focus on is the extraneous cognitive load. It exists because of bad UI design and turning a blind eye to user experience. Designers should aim to minimize it as much as possible. Here’s how.

Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load for Better UI

Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load for Better UI
Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

 icon-angle-right Recognition over recollection

Humans recognize things much better than they remember them. Users are more likely to remember icons already used in the past as they have identified them and their functionalities.

Recognition also requires lesser mental effort than recalling something. This way, there is a lower risk of error.

 icon-angle-right Avoid over stimulation

Remember Miller’s Law? It states that we can hold only seven pieces of information in our short-term memory.

While this doesn’t mean you should limit the interface to only seven elements, it’s a good practice to only present micro-interactions and animations that serves a clear purpose.

 icon-angle-right Be consistent

It’s crucial to be uniform with the design from start to finish. Whether that is a color scheme, fonts, or the type of buttons, icons, and imagery you use.

The law of Pragnanz in Gestalt psychology states that, “people will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form possible, because it is the interpretation that requires the least cognitive effort of us.”

Suppose you thrust too many visual stimuli on the user without a coherent pattern. In that case, it may be jarring for the user.

 icon-angle-right Don’t offer too many options

The Hick-Hyman Law states that when the user is presented with too many options, they take longer to arrive at a decision.

An easy way to do this is to segregate content into logical groups or buckets. These buckets can include tabs, visual groups, screens, and sections.

 icon-angle-right Follow the rules

The world of interfaces is constantly changing, yet the basics remain the same. Explore new styles and keep up with trends but ensure that your foundation is strong.

UI and UX design principles exist for a reason and have been passed down for decades. It’s because they work. Use familiar patterns and keep it simple. The more aesthetically pleasing your interface is, the higher the chances of conversion.

All interface design begins by understanding user needs and the psychology behind what the user wants and needs. At the heart of good design lies a solution that is only achievable by lessening the user’s burden of interactions.

When you can decrease the mental efforts of the user at every step of the way, the interface can be successful.

 icon-angle-right Bin unnecessary site redesigns

Your users won’t like getting overwhelmed with multiple choices all at once. This is the case with sudden website redesigns.

What you need to do instead is ensure that your website evolves incrementally over time, giving them ample time to adjust to each minute change.

Think of Amazon’s website, which has literally made changes to it over the years. That’s how it is to be done – plain, simple, and no shocker.

 icon-angle-right Rules of redesign

The caveat to the previous pointer is that there are some instances, where you’ll have no other choice but to redesign the website.

In cases of a branding revamp or shifting focus to a new domain altogether will lead you to reconsider designing your website from the scratch. Can you still reduce the cognitive load?

The answer is yes.

  • Try and mirror the original site as much as you can.
  • Salvage old content and images if they are of high-quality.
  • Repurpose elements across the web pages.
  • Initially, provide the users the option to switch back to the old design.
  • Guide them with tool tips for a simple onboarding process.

 icon-angle-right Be consistent

Consistency is the key to reduce cognitive load. And it goes hand in hand with the familiarity concept. Your users will expect the product/website to behave in a particular way.

For instance, if you’ve always used hamburger menus instead of offering breadcrumb navigation, maintain the same in your website.

Using recurring UI patterns is the key here.

 icon-angle-right Make it inclusive

Inclusive design lays the groundwork to reduce cognitive loads. When you start making a website accessible, you’ll be taking into consideration users with cognitive disabilities.

This will automatically resolve the cognitive load issues. Thinking simple is the key here, including the language. Or better, replace text entirely with infographic or visuals.

Reducing cognitive load in voice design

In Alexa blog, Amazon specifies, “In voice you should put the focal information at the very end of the prompt, as this will reduce the cognitive and memory load for the user.

When you are designing with APL, you have to keep in mind that with visual interfaces, you should put the focal information first, at the very top of the screen.”

Now that you’re fairly in the know about cognitive load, you should be able to design for voice without overwhelming the users. Here’s how you can go about it:

 icon-angle-right Notice when their attention peaks

Users are accustomed to interact with GUI in a certain way. This is slightly removed from the way they interact with a VUI.

They may make the command unprompted and change the course of action based on the output received. The attention required to operate through the interface remains more or less consistent throughout.

And yes, they’ll need to be completely alert to receive as well as understand the system response. The best option is to reduce the options in the VUI per interaction. Make the questions and queries intuitive.


Reducing cognitive load is not as easy as it seems. There are multiple factors that come to play. To sum up aptly, Grice’s Maxims can be used across user interfaces to make communication as seamless as possible.

These are maxims of – quantity, quality, relation and manner. Together, they form the Cooperative Principle and while they work mainly across voice design, there’s no harm in doing a little bit of trial and error to see how it fits the scheme of things across visual interfaces.

About the Author!

Alka is the Design Director at Pepper Square UI UX Design Agency. She seeks to solve real-world challenges by Simplifying Interfaces. She writes to share her insights with the industry and loves to witness myriad hues of life through reading, yoga, and travel. Designing, of course, remains her first love.

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