Improve Outcomes by Lessening Cognitive Load

I was pretty excited to get my new Macbook. Light & tight, it’s one sexy little piece of hardware. Except for one small thing – when I have 5 browsers open, each with 10-15 tabs plus 6 spreadsheets and photoshop, my beautiful little machine slows down… and, on the rare occasion, crashes. I’ve figured out if I want to avoid this happening  when I’m trying to get something important done, I need to shut down programs that aren’t needed to complete that task.

Human brains are similar to my laptop in that they have a limited amount of processing capacity. When the amount of information we are receiving exceeds our ability to handle it, our performance will suffer. Here’s the thing – we often think that smart people should be able to process lots of information & that focused people won’t get sent off track. But science has proven that the more distractions people are presented with, the less likely they will have enough brain power to push through a task – no matter how simple it seems. The result? They take longer to understand the information, they might miss very important details or get completely overwhelmed and abandon the task altogether.

How Working Memory Works

To overcome this in a computer, you have two options – to increase its processing power or to lessen the load on its memory but shutting down unnecessary programs. With humans – there are some tricks to temporarily improve processing power (including our very own Lucid Smart Pill) but the biggest improvements can be seen when the load is lessened on the part of the brain focused on helping you solve problems & learn new things – the working memory. Working memory is the part of the brain that powers conscious thought – it is powerful because it has the ability to hold & manipulate information, making it possible to learn new things but it does have a couple of important limitations:

  • Temporary: It is only able to hold information for a few seconds.
  • Limited Capacity: It is only able to hold 5-7 pieces of information at a time.
  • Easily Distracted: It works best when attention is controlled & requires limited mental effort.

In the late 1980s, John Sweller (an Australian psychologist) was studying how students solved problems and came up with a theory he called Cognitive Load to describe the mental effort required to learn new information, interpret a situation & act on it. Because our working memory has the limitations described above, it stands to reason that the lower the cognitive load, the easier & faster a decision can be made.

In case you couldn’t tell, we at Lucid are passionate about body betterment, neuro-enhancement, productivity & focus. To be kept up to date on any other blogs or infographics, add yourself to our community mailing list.

Cognitive Load + User Experience

While the theory of Cognitive Load was originally formulated to improve education & learning, it is now understood to also apply to all kinds of experiences & tasks – especially those online such as website navigation, app usage & eCommerce. If you, as an online business operator invest time and energy into lessening the Cognitive Load for ‘users’ – in other words, making it easier for them to make decisions and complete tasks – you can actually increase the likelihood of users deciding in your favour.

There are a multitude of ways you can help reduce cognitive load for your users across everything from how they interact with your website & products through to how they complete a transaction or communicate with you. Here are a couple of our favourite tips & tricks:

Reduce Choices

Overwhelming users with options will often make it impossible for them to make a decision, resulting in a decreased conversion rate for the supplier. Providing users fewer & pre-defined options will simplify the decision for them, making them more likely to follow through with a purchase. When Proctor & Gamble went from 26 different SKUs of Head & Shoulders to 15, they saw an increase in sales of 10%!

Categorise Your Products  

Interestingly, working memory is able to handle quite a lot more categories than it can choices. Dividing a large number of products into categories so that they are not as overwhelming will help your user be able to tell the choices apart – thereby making the decision easier.

Avoid Emotional Decisions

I read about this one on a Tech Crunch article & just had to include it. Not too long ago it was discovered that there were some pretty big differences in the percentage of the population who had pledged to donate their organs between different countries (averaging only 15% in the lower countries and nearly 99% in the higher ones). Researchers discovered that the reason for this difference was the default organ donation function on the forms filled out at at the local transportation authorities when applying for a license. The countries with the higher portion of the population choosing to make the commitment generally had applications that defaulted to opt-out for organ donation. Those with the lower donation numbers had organ donation as opt-in. Because the option of what do with our bodies when we die is such an emotional one (that affects family members as well) it makes it hard for people to make a decision so they will usual adopt the default option.


Present information Visually & Verbally

Humans have separate information processing channels within working memory for verbal & visual material but only have a limited amount of processing capacity within each channel. But here’s where it gets complicated, in order to learn something, humans will probably have to process via both visual & verbal channels! This means important information should be presented in both formats so that the load is spread between the two but ensuring the maximum chance of it being processed. For example, the fact that you offer free shipping may help customers decide to purchase via your eCommerce store but in order for them to learn that you offer it, you will need to present the information to them in a number of different ways throughout your website: via a free shipping symbol on your products, explained verbally in a free shipping section on your website and at check out where users are reminded that shipping is free.


We’ve elaborated on this topic with some more tips & tricks in the presentation below:

In case you couldn’t tell, we at Lucid are passionate about body betterment, neuro-enhancement, productivity & focus. To be kept up to date on any other blogs or infographics, add yourself to our community mailing list.

Extra Reading:

Sheena Lyengar’s TED Talk: How to make choosing easier

Amie Weller Colbert

Amie is the CXO of Lucid. With her decade of experience in successfully creating and building brands, Amie is integral to the future reach of the Lucid brand and products.