The Top Design Commandments I’ve Picked Up From The Greats: #1 — Reduce Cognitive Load

Adit Kohli
6 min readApr 30, 2020

Design for interactive systems is heavily influenced by many disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics, technology, cognition and more. While designers use a lot of these principles in their day-to-day work, they use it mostly with their intuition without a deep understanding of such extremely diverse areas. This prevents a majority of young designers from developing the kind of validation and knowledge that strengthens the design decision-making process and makes someone a better designer.

Designers must operate with a toolset they can use to determine the consequences of their design decisions. Over the years a number of influential personalities (like John Maeda, Dieter Rams, Jakob Nielsen, Ben Shneiderman, Dan Brown, Steve Krug, Vilfredo Pareto and others) have formulated principles or “rules”, in a way that allows followers to apply their theories into practice towards building better-designed products. Since these rules cover diverse areas and often overlap and conflict with each other, a strict adherence to all of them is impossible. However the underlying principles still help the designer understand the trade-off that would result in either adhering to or disregarding those rules.

Over the years, I have summarized principles from each of these legends to the most important rules I use for building, evaluating and improving the user interfaces of products. These have always helped me in presenting and articulating my design decisions during meetings with various stakeholders, and I sincerely hope these rules guide your team towards making appropriate design decisions as well.

Rule #1 Reduce Cognitive Load

When you visit a website or fire an app on your phone for the first time, your brain instantly starts to figure out how to interact with it along with retaining the reason you came there in the first place. If the product is designed in a way that the user doesn’t even notice it, it’s served its purpose as the less users have to think about the interface or design, the more they can focus on accomplishing their goal on your website.

On the other hand, complicated and confusing interfaces force users to find solutions to problems that shouldn’t be there in the first place. A user who feels confused by the interface, the choices, the navigation and so on will likely feel overwhelmed in their thinking process.

This resulting mental strain to process information related to reasoning and decision-making caused as a result of complex interactions, too many choices or lack of clarity, is referred to as the cognitive load.

Any time your user has to stop and think while using your website or app, it taxes their working memory and cognitive load. What kind of harm is caused by increment of cognitive load by too much of design?

- High bounce rate, meaning the users quit the site fast

- Low depth of site visit, meaning users leave without navigating to different sections

- High attrition rate, meaning bad user experience is preventing users from returning to your product

- Low conversion rate, meaning users are confused to perform the intended action

To summarize, every time the user has to pause to think while browsing a website — even for an instant — their working memory is weighed down. People aren’t going to use a website — let alone buy a product –that leaves them exasperated and confused.

Unchecked cognitive load can trigger your users into abandoning the task at hand, so the more you can minimize it, the better your user experience. The famed UX professional and writer Steve Krug popularized the application of cognitive load theory to web design in his book “Don’t Make Me Think” — considered a seminal work by many designers. Besides Krug, many others have elaborated on the role of cognitive load theory in design, including the usability gurus at Nielsen Norman Group.

Below, I’ve listed the most prevalent types found in digital design, along with the best practices for avoiding them.

Avoid unnecessary elements that don’t add value or don’t help the users achieve their goals. Remember, rich visuals and wild animation is NOT the proof of your craft. So in place of too many fonts or colors, ornate embellishments, meaningless stock photographs, design flourishes or jarring animation, keep visuals and content simple to make it it more likely for users to actually follow the instructions and prevent them from making mistakes.

For instance online tie retailer, Skinny Ties boosted conversions by 85% by redesigning their store front from a cluttered look to a clean, modern layout with an open, responsive design approach.

In case volume and depth of content is not avoidable, organize information in chunks to present copious of content in a way that makes it easier to remember.

For instance, mega menus are an excellent solution to show dense navigational structure with a lot of categories and content in an organized manner, like we see on Staples website below

Be predictable by leveraging common design patterns and universally understood elements that offer users familiarity and as little distractions as possible. Remember, humans are better at recognizing things than they are at remembering them.

For instance, icons help designers guide users intuitively through a workflow. But when they are confusing or have conflicting meaning, its advisable to use labels to communicate complex features.

Reduce or shift tasks away from the user by leveraging previously stored information or setting defaults that can be edited or undone later.

For instance, travel portal Skyscanner uses defaults to pre-populate cabin class and travellers fields to what most other users typically select.

Don’t present users with too many choices causing decision paralysis, especially in key interactions such as navigation, forms, and SERP. In fact wherever possible, eliminate totally needless options by anticipating users preferences and making certain decisions on behalf of them.

For instance, lets consider the classic jam experiment in a grocery store where at certain times, the stall had 6 flavors from which to choose and at other times, it had 24 choices. The researchers behind the experiment saw a mere 3% conversion rate when offering 24 jams compared to a 30% conversion rate when there were only six choices.

Make it easy for users to find sections and information they need with the help of intuitive Information Architecture and Navigation

Keep a consistent format throughout the website by employing a style guide that collects all of the global design decisions in one easily accessible place for quick access whenever the designer needs them.

Finally, keep copy obvious and easily scannable avoiding poetic prose and metaphors

By following the principles above, you can drastically reduce the user’s cognitive load and ensure their attention remains on the goal, whether it is to buy a product, subscribe to something or simply to learn more about the content. The less they have to think about what they need to do to achieve their goal, the more likely it is they will achieve it.

I hope you found this useful and will see you shortly with my Rule #2 J