Woman with computerJust lately I keep finding I’m reading about cognitive overload when it comes to websites.  It’s one of those geeky terms that are like gobbledegook – what does it really mean?

The answer is simple – it means that the visitor to your website is being given too much information, too many options, too much to do in order to get what they want.  Actually, it’s something I’ve been banging on about for years, but in more layman-friendly language.  It’s all about how our brains work in relation to what they see.

The more work your brain has to do the less it takes in and, when your brain feels it’s being asked to do too much, it usually announces ‘find something easier for me to understand’.  That’s the point when you hit the back button and look for something that requires less effort.

Let’s take an example:

I’ve just landed on the home page of a website that came up in a search I did for something I was interested in finding out about.  It loads with a banner header and, underneath, six coloured boxes with headlines and a bit of text.  My brain focuses on the banner (because it’s in prime real estate i.e. where we tend to engage with the screen.  ‘Nice picture’, it thinks and half reads the headline – but then the banner moves on to another picture and headline.  The brain scans down to look at the six boxes underneath and my brain goes ‘too many options’ and scans to and fro.  Then the banner moves again and my brain is distracted back to the movement.  The headline and picture aren’t what  I was looking for so now my brain is starting to get confused and sends the message out ‘Find something easier where you can see what you want.’  BACK BUTTON!  Next.

Problem 1:  Things that move, particularly sudden movements, change the focus and redirect the attention so that the reader never really gets a clear vision of what’s on offer.

Problem 2:  Six boxes with lots of written content (i.e. more than 3-4 words) require effort to read and understand, particularly when they stop mid sentence and have a ‘…read more’ tag.  Most of us are too lazy, time-poor to bother to explore in that much depth, we need instant gratification.

Problem 3:  If the boxes are coloured and the writing is white (or lighter than the background), this tests the brain even further as the eyes find reading reversed-out writing much harder.  The white lines chopping up the background creates a dazzle effect so a fairly large proportion of your brainpower is engaged in trying to actually make out the letters.  That means that comprehension of the message plummets – not good news if you’re hoping for your website visitor to stay around long enough to take action.

Poor old brains!  We do ask them to work quite hard and it’s hardly surprising that they dig their heels in and demand a break now and again!

So what does this mean to you?  Have you checked your website design for cognitive overload?  Your designer probably hasn’t as it’s not part of design training, your developer may have checked for usability, but may have missed some of these issues as they’re not really technical.  Want to know more?  Give us a call or drop us an email.


You might find these blogs about cognitive overload interesting:

Gerry McGovern – New Thinking

Jakob Nielsen – Alertbox (don’t be put off by the geeky title, it’s written in easy to understand language)