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Five Lessons from Cognitive Science to Boost Website Usability

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February 24, 2021

Most of us relate, at one point or another, to the term information overload and the tension headaches it can trigger.

Coined in the 1960s by Bertram Gross, a social scientist at Hunter College, the term refers to the abundance of information available to an individual attempting to complete a task or make a decision.

In a group brainstorming session recently, our team at Atriata laughed at the notion of information overload in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet literally put information at our fingertips. “What would Gross think about our work and personal lives now?” someone asked. “Information saturation,” a colleague offered, while someone else suggested, “information save our ship.”

Today, as many as 46 percent of people in the United States find it burdensome to keep track of the information they want or need to consume for work and other obligations, according to a study by Pew Research Center. But information is important, and everyone knows it’s here to stay, especially in our current knowledge economy, which makes information our most valuable commodity, writes Paul Hemp in an article, “Death by Information Overload,” for Harvard Business Review.

As web designers and developers who create sites with the user experience in mind, we stay updated and informed on how people consume information in a truly information-laden environment. We talked recently to Norbou Buchler, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist who serves as a branch chief and specializes in human systems integration for the United States Army Development Command Analysis Center (DEVCOM). Here, we share some of the lessons learned from our conversation that relate specifically to our work in human-centered, UX web design.

Lesson #1: Consider cognitive load as you build or modify your website.

Put simply, cognitive load refers to the amount of used working memory it takes to perform a task. Since working memory lasts only temporarily, if an individual experiences cognitive overload, then the chances of that individual completing a task you want them to complete diminishes. They abandon ship.

Cognitive load increases with competing distractions and too much stimulation—both of which are commonplace in today’s info-drenched surroundings. Buchler and his team call this the “four Vs of information,” with the Vs representing:

  • volume
  • velocity
  • veracity
  • variety

“The first V is the increased volume of information, with ever-growing repositories of data and information through which to sift,” Buchler explains, “while the second V refers to the rising velocity of information, with info coming at us faster than ever with real-time deliveries.”

“Third is the decreased veracity, meaning it’s harder to vet and trust the level of credibility of information,” he continues, “and fourth is the increasing variety of information hitting users from a variety of platforms—all at once.”

Buchler advises making your website stimulating enough to capture your users’ attention (otherwise, their attention will wander, he says), but not so stimulating that you overload your users and potential clients or customers.

How can you determine that?

Lesson #2: Know your users.

The only way to figure out whether your overall site or a particular page over- or under-stimulates your users is to test, test, and then test some more. Buchler advises designing in a way that we advocate at Astriata—namely, from a cognitive human systems perspective, in which your design, navigation, functionality, and content reflect findings from usability testing. With our proprietary usability testing platform, UserHappy®, we get to know your target audience through the use of surveys, interviews, focus groups, and task-based usability testing, which analyzes your users’ experience with specific tasks.

“A website from a cognitive human systems perspective serves a function,” Buchler says. “You can use what you learn from testing and iterate through the design process, with the goal of aligning your site with what users want to accomplish.”

Conducting usability testing upfront can save money in the long run. “My field has a saying: ‘as soon as you bend metal, you’ve lost,’” Buchler shares. “Basically, this means that testing needs to come first because once you start developing a product or website, it becomes costly to make design changes at that point.”

“The earlier, the better,” he adds.

Lesson #3: Update your use of Miller’s law.

Many web designers adhere to and follow a psychological precept known as Miller’s Law, published by Princeton University psychologist George Miller in 1956. The law suggests that the number of objects most people can hold in working memory at any one time is seven, plus or minus two. “The theory gave rise to the seven-digit phone number,” Buchler says, “in the era before we needed to include the area code.”

“But the theory is outdated because it doesn’t factor in the context of today’s information-saturated environment,” Buchler says, and the many demands on our working memory, or our ability to hold information in our head in the short-term to do things like make a decision or solve a problem. Miller’s Law can apply in certain situations in web design, particularly those that do not require concurrent cognitive demands, but a better model to use is that of working memory expert Nelson Cowan, who says most adults can focus on only three or four chunked items at a time.

“Think about an image with four dots,” Buchler says. “Most of us can determine that there are four dots on a page without counting each individual dot.” If a page features seven dots, however, or eight, nine, or 10 dots, the chance of people having to count each dot increases—thus, the cognitive load increases.

“If you want users to retain what you’re conveying on a page, try to limit yourself to three or four takeaways,” he advises. “Anything more than that will require focused attention, which can be demanding from a cognitive perspective.”

Lesson #4: Use creativity sparingly.

As a creative agency, we flinch at hearing ourselves say this. Yet we also know there’s a time and place for creativity—and that, as Buchler says, we design with cognitive load in mind. One way we do so is by encouraging our clients to maintain consistency across the entire site, while following conventions in certain places. What do we mean?

Take, for instance, the main navigation of your website. You don’t want to try to reinvent the wheel with sections like About and Contact. Users understand what these names mean (they already have the mental model) and don’t think twice when they click on them. In this sense, finding these sections contributes little, if any, to their cognitive load.

If you attempt to name your Contact page something different or clever—say, you call it Interactions—then your users will need to expend energy and effort figuring out how to get in touch with you.

At the same time, you want to be consistent across your site with certain features—for example, your use of radio buttons, your page heading colors, and your link colors. These are not places to mix in variety. Although we embrace creativity and infuse it in every project, with certain features (like your navigation), the goal is efficiency. Ultimately, we want to minimize the amount of relearning required by users by, as Buchler says, “taking advantage of their expectations and making the experience as intuitive as possible.”

Lesson #5: Don’t forget about your internal users.

Some UX designers and testers focus only on external users. At Astriata, we know your internal users—i.e., your employees—count, too. Buchler agrees with this approach. “The people using your site on the backend need to like it,” he says. “They need to be able to upload content easily or use the site to keep themselves updated, or they need a particular dashboard to track business analytics.”

Whatever the case, quality web designers and developers take time to figure out how your internal users interact with the site. How often do they update content? What reports, information, and dashboards do they need? What features do they use—and not use? “Too many software programmers and website developers just start designing, and the user is an afterthought,” Buchler says. “When it comes to usability, determining how employees use your site to perform certain tasks can lead to incredible insights that boost your efficiency and cut costs down the line.”

For more on how psychology informs our user-friendly work at Astriata, read “How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Inspires Our Approach to Web Design.”


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