Cognitive load : from knowing your user to designing for him.

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Since I moved to Paris, I got used to waiting for the bus knowing exactly how many minutes I must wait for the next one to come. Now, whenever I travel to a city where the bus doesn’t show that information, I feel vaguely lost because I have to take a few steps to deduce how much time I’ll have to wait for the next bus by looking at the schedule that typically is affixed on the bus station. Experience design and the cognitive load approach helped me understanding this problem.

David Lieb, one of the creators of bump, one of of the most innovative (and cool) apps both in its technology and the UX, explain why our product isn’t as simple as we think. As he puts it :

“Minimizing cognitive overhead is imperative when designing for the mass market. Why? Because most people haven’t developed the pattern matching machinery in their brains to quickly convert what they see in your product (app design, messaging, what they heard from friends, etc.) into meaning and purpose. We, the product builders, take our ability to cut through cognitive overhead for granted; our mental circuits for our products’ patterns are well practiced.

This is especially pronounced for mass market mobile products. Normal people already have to use more of their mental horsepower to cut through cognitive overhead. Now imagine the added burden of having to do that while on a crowded bus, or in line at Starbucks, or while opening your app for the first time while eating dinner with a friend and texting another. This isn’t 1999 when your users were sitting in their quiet bedrooms checking out your website on a large monitor while waiting for their Napster downloads to finish; they are out in the real world being bombarded with distractions.”

Cognitive overhead, or cognitive load, is best explained by John Sweller :

“In essence, cognitive load theory proposes that since working memory is limited, learners may be bombarded by information and, if the complexity of their instructional materials is not properly managed, this will result in a cognitive overload. This cognitive overload impairs schema acquisition, later resulting in a lower performance (Sweller, 1988)”. (from this blog post)

There’s a structure to which our brain organizes the information and processes it, particularly, there’s a process to which our brain processes new information and learns, this is the human cognitive architecture. The aspects of cognitive architecture relevant to visually based instructional design are working memory, long-term memory, schemas and automation.

“Working memory plays an essential role in complex cognition. Everyday cognitive tasks – such as reading a newspaper article, calculating the appropriate amount to tip in a restaurant, mentally rearranging furniture in one’s living room to create space for a new sofa, and comparing and contrasting various attributes of different apartments to decide which to rent – often involve multiple steps with intermediate results that need to be kept in mind temporarily to accomplish the task at hand successfully. “Working memory” is the theoretical construct that has come to be used in cognitive psychology to refer to the system or mechanism underlying the maintenance of task-relevant information during the performance of a cognitive task (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980).” (here for a complete reading on working memory)

Long-term memory is central to the cognitive process as it brings elements to the working memory to provide for comprehension (here to explore further LTM) and in its different forms retains parts of knowledge in the brain for later (more than just a few minutes) to be used.
Schemas, are of particular interest to the designer, particularly image schemas. “Knowledge is stored in long-term memory in schematic form and schema theory describes a major learning mechanism” (Sweller again), continuing to quote :

“most researchers now accept that problem solving expertise in complex areas demands the acquisition of tens of thousands of domain-specific schemas. These schemas allow expert problem solvers to visually recognize problem states according to the appropriate moves associated with them. Schema theory assumes that skill in any area is dependent on the acquisition of specific schemas stored in long-term memory. Schemas, stored in long-term memory, permit the processing of high element interactivity material in working memory by permitting working memory to treat the many interacting elements as a single element. As an example, anyone reading this text has visual schemas for the complex squiggles that represent a word. Those schemas, stored in long-term memory, allow us to reproduce and manipulate the squiggles that constitute writing, in working memory, without strain. But, we are only able to do so after several years of learning.”

Through significant repetition, schemas can become unconsciously stored in the long-term memory and are brought effortlessly to the working memory, when required. This unconscious automation is achieved by practice  :

“Everything that is learned can, with practice, become automated. After practice, specific categories of information can be processed with decreasing conscious effort. In other words, processing can occur with decreasing working memory load. As an example, schemas that permit us to read letters and words must initially be processed consciously in working memory. With practice they can be processed with decreasing conscious effort until eventually, reading individual letters and words becomes an unconscious activity that does not require working memory capacity.”

And this is a fundamental piece for interaction design. It’s by best grasping these automated processes that significantly reduce the working memory load or schemas that are best implanted in long-term memory, it is by recognizing these social patterns that the designer will achieve the most rapid cognition of the user, it is how he will best achieve the intended usability.

And that is where the role of the marketeer enters (closed article). If the designer can best translate the usability goal into an experience, meaning he can optimize the interface and physical/mental process given the constraints of the user’s schemas and automations, it is the role of the marketeer while user researcher to provide these constraints and highlight priorities because he’s the one who knows who the target is and what schemas and automations the user has stored in his behavior.

As it turns out, when I first moved to Paris, I had no schemas concerning the bus indication as part of the whole process of taking the bus. But that process could be optimized. Before, when I got into the station I would just wait for the bus to come. Once I acquired a new schema my memory  became filled with an alternative process of how that experience can be and eventually became an automated process searching for that number of minutes I’ll have to wait. Going back to the old schemas now is just not that good experience…

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8 thoughts on “Cognitive load : from knowing your user to designing for him.

  1. Can I simply just say what a comfort to find somebody that actually knows what they’re talking about online. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people ought to check this out and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you’re not more popular given that you
    certainly have the gift.

    • Hi Victoria, thanks! We’re just starting and hope to keep sharing our experience and investigation here. Cheers 😉

  2. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to send you an e-mail.
    I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.

  3. Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested
    to see if it can survive a 30 foot drop, just so
    she can be a youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now
    broken and she has 83 views. I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

    • tell her to try putting a cat somewhere in the video and it might decrease cognitive load… lol

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