Ever think about your app’s Cognitive Overhead?

I like to use simple pics to illustrate my thinking and for the post I thought the first pics of my baby girl climbing the stairs would do. She had only been crawling a few weeks but was always looking at the stairs. One night she just decided to start going up them one at a time. Took forever and it was funny to watch each step and her reaction as she slowly made her way up. No one really taught her to do it. She had been crawling, standing and pulling herself up but for some reason she decided to connect all those behaviors into one motion, albeit slow motion, and ascend the stairs.

Today I read this article on TC – I rarely ever read TC but when someone links to something good I usually check it out. This is a good one:


The article is not a super long read and worth digging into – here is the thrust of it:

Cognitive Overhead — “how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.”

For all of us who “make” things, we naturally assume that everyone else approaches or sees the product they way we have gotten used to building, testing and using the product. Scroll this, click this, wait for this and so on. But the reality is most of your users, apart from the returning ones, are new and have no idea what to do. So whether they think about it, or you design it that way, the user has to process his surroundings, the app and the outcome to an advantageous situation. It could be that the user delights in the app and uses it or struggles with it and deletes it. I think the decision tends to happen pretty quick.

Lots of other factors come into play as well

Is the app free and therefore no barriers to entry?
Is it a freemium model so everyone can try before they buy?
Does your app need other factors like social, good network and so on to work well?

Not sure that everyone can simple draw a success matrix for cognitive overhead or let’s say to cut down on the cognitive overhead but the model warrants some thinking. I can imagine almost going through my entire app/site and thinking about the cognitive overhead. My team is going to hate me.

I am not sure I have the answers yet but when I think of my kid ascending the stairs – I am sure it was a pretty simple leap in her mind and she just did it. There was not a lot to think about, the problem was clear (challenge) and the outcome was well known. How do I make it this simple for my users?

The goal for myself now is to think about my app (mobile and web) and start figuring out where the overhead is, how can we induce better feedback and for our ecosystem especially – how can we guide the users through the errors or technical issues so that they help us fix them or we make it where there are no errors. Video streaming is never perfect. 🙂

So I am dwelling on this paragraph a bit:

If your user has to wonder, “So, did it work?” you’ve failed. Walk people through using your product like a magician leads the audience through an illusion. Point out the steps along the way, or whatever magic your product is providing could be lost to the user.

Much to think about. Hoping to see more discussion on this topic since I like the way it is somewhat boiling down problems to science versus pure art.


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