Psychology-Driven Brand Design. Creating and Refining Remarkable Brand Identities.

Is Cognitive Load Ruining Your Website?

Table of Contents

Cognitive load: A fancy term to describe the amount of brain power (specifically of the working memory) required to complete a task.

Everything in life activates and affects the cognitive load of your working memory. Driving a car, singing along with a song on the radio, reading a news article, completing a survey, browsing Facebook, et cetera. So cognitive load is not a bad thing. It just means your brain is working. (Yay!) What you want to avoid on your website is cognitive overload — making your user’s brain work harder than it needs to.

High cognitive load = bad

Why? Because when the demand we place on our working memory exceeds the capacity of it, the brain becomes less efficient at processing. High cognitive load can hamper decision-making, rational thought, comprehension, and recall. The emotional and psychological effects this has on your users is that they become:

  • more frustrated,
  • more anxious,
  • less open to experience,
  • more likely to leave your site prematurely,
  • less likely to think positively of your brand.

None of this sounds good, does it? All of this hurts your brand AND your bottom line.

Two ways to reduce cognitive load on your website

Take heart! Cognitive overload doesn’t have to derail your marketing efforts. You have two primary weapons to defeat cognitive overload: simplicity and familiarity.

Decrease cognitive load with simplicity.

Your working memory — depending on who you ask — holds between three and nine pieces of new information at any given time, for less than 20 seconds. While this rule doesn’t apply to web design explicitly, it highlights the limitations that our brains have for actively processing information in any context. As the working memory tries to process more than it has capacity for, performance tends to suffer.

It’s also important to understand that you can’t control the cognitive load your users may be under independent of their interaction with your website. For examples, if they are browsing your website while in a distracting environment, listening to music, feeling stressed, or sleep deprived, the capacity of their working memory is lower than someone viewing your site in more optimal conditions.

Given these limitations, you want to lessen the demand on your user’s brain as much as you are able. Simplify the information you are requiring them process, in both number and complexity.

How to simplify: #1 – Make your copy readable.

The average American reads at a 7th grade reading level. Even if your audience is highly literate, their experience improves when you present information at a lower reading level.

It’s the difference between:

“See Jane run.”


“Perceive with your eyes the manner in which the woman named Jane is locomoting posthaste.”

Perhaps a bit exaggerated… but the fact remains that the simpler sentence creates less cognitive load for your brain.

Go through your website to make sure you’re not creating unnecessary high cognitive load with your copy.

  • Avoid long words and complex sentences when something simpler can convey the same idea.
  • Break up long paragraphs into smaller sentences.
  • Use bulleted lists to make information easier to process.
  • Measure the reading level of your writing with free tools like Hemingway App or Readability Test Tool. (Go ahead; try it. You’ll probably be surprised at your readability score!)
How to simplify: #2 – Limit the amount of visual clutter.

Every single thing you add to your webpage increases your user’s cognitive load. Consider the principle of simplicity whenever you are making decisions about your website’s design, interface, and content.

  • Reduce the number of options.
    This doesn’t just mean the obvious case of, for example, asking users to select between the three options of your pricing plan. When a user lands on one of your webpages, they have to decide what action to take next. These options may include:
    • click on any number of your navigation links
    • stop to wait for your rotating carousel to cycle through
    • click on the social media logos you have at the top of your page
    • scroll down for more content
    • fill in your lead generation form
    • watch your explainer video
    • click in the search field to find something
    • scan the section of latest blog posts
    • click on another of your navigation links

    …And so on. Whenever you have a lot of options, your user has to consider each one in relation to all the other potential options as well as their relevance to the task at hand. This makes it all too easy for analysis paralysis, to take over. Too many options can cause your users to not take any action at all (except to leave your site!). The alternative is they’ll continue to click around getting more frustrated by the second. Neither outcomes are desirable.

    So you have an Instagram feed that you want to add to your home page. And you want to add a featured service to the home page. And a “tip of the day” to the home page. And another navigation menu. And, and, and…

    It’s not that these things are bad, but you want to be intentional about what content you include. Consider the most important content that will drive people to your intended goal, as anything else will just get in the way.
  • In your website design, simple clean design is better.
    Less is more. The popularity of minimalist design is obvious. It has power to drive targeted results. A lot of different colors, animated elements, distracting imagery, and crowded pages all create competition for your user’s attention.

    You also want to consider the structure and visual hierarchy of your page to allow the brain to quickly scan and comprehend information. Use large headlines and subheadings along with plenty of white space to create separation and flow.

All of this is, of course, a balancing act. You don’t want to oversimplify to the point that your site becomes boring, ineffective, and undifferentiated. For larger sites, it may be impossible to avoid multiple navigation menus. And sometimes you need to include ads to monetize your blog, distracting as they may be. There is no blanket statement for what is right and wrong for all websites. Your goal is to simplify as much as possible while still retaining clarity, effectiveness, and personality.

How to simplify: #3 – Make your sales path a no-brainer.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a blogger wanting to grow your subscribers, an e-commerce shop wanting to sell more products, or a consultant wanting to get more leads. Don’t make your users work too hard to do what they came to do (or what you want them to do!).

Identify the top reasons people will be on your site and then put yourself in their shoes. When they land on any page of your website, how easy is it for them to reach their goal?

  • Cut the steps necessary for them to get from A to Z. A general rule of thumb is they should be able to find anything they need within 2 clicks.
  • Make sure your call to action is clear, visible, and uncluttered.
  • A single call to action is best. In cases where you need more (e.g. including both “Add to Cart” and “Add to Wishlist” buttons), use visual cues to clearly show that one action is primary. Make all actions simple to understand and differentiate between.

Decrease Cognitive Load with Familiarity.

Create things that are already familiar and you will decrease your users’ cognitive load. Why? Because they don’t have to spend the mental energy to learn something new.

Riding a bike is a great example of low cognitive load due to familiarity. When you’re first learning to ride a bike, cognitive load is high because there is a lot to think about simultaneously:

  • maintaining balance on the seat
  • steering the bike on the right path
  • the speed at which you pedal
  • how hard you need to brake
  • avoiding that pothole in the road
  • what to do if you start to wobble
  • trying not to think about what happens if you fall

All of this relies on your working memory processing in real time what you need to do in order to ride to the end of the street and back without crashing. But the more you do it, the more familiar it becomes. After a while it’s a learned process that you don’t have to consciously think about. It now requires a low cognitive load. All the working memory has to do is refer to your long-term memory where you already have this learned action stored.

The same is true of your website. Stick to familiar layouts. Position elements in the places where your user expects to see them. When an interface is familiar, it allows our long-term memory to kick in and take the load off of our working memory.

It’s tempting to “get creative” with your website layout and navigation labels. Perhaps you don’t want to look exactly like your competitors’ websites. Perhaps you’re in a creative industry where deviating from the norm is welcomed. Perhaps you’re a bit of an Outlaw and don’t like conventions. There may be cases where this is appropriate for your brand.

But don’t spit in the face of convention when it can work in your favor. Don’t put your menu in the bottom right corner just to shake things up, when your user will be looking for it across the top or on the left side. Don’t hide your shopping cart link in a dropdown menu when all other e-commerce shops have it visible in the top right of the header. Don’t use icons instead of words in your menu simply because you think it’s clever and looks cool.

When Bucknell University redesigned their website in 2014, their unconventional website ultimately tested poorly in usability tests. The feedback given by one user seemed to reflect a general consensus: “It seems like it’s trying too hard to be different, and different is simply making me confused. It needs to be easier to navigate.” Ouch.

While there is value to being different (people will pay attention to things that stand out, so it can increase engagement and recall), it shouldn’t be done at the expense of usability. Again, it is a balancing act of utilizing familiar conventions while allowing your unique brand to shine through.

Don’t Make Them Think

User experience is arguably the most important aspect of your website. If users can’t easily use your site, it’s useless, no matter how pretty it looks. There’s a web usability book by Steve Krug called Don’t Make Me Think. In it, he writes, “As a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things. The fact that people who built the site didn’t care enough to make things obvious — and easy— can erode our confidence in the site and its publishers.”

The last thing you want to do is erode your users’ trust in your brand simply because your website is frustrating to them or feels like work.

The best way to reduce cognitive load on your website is simply: don’t make your users think. Of course they can think, and they will think, but don’t force them to think about things that they shouldn’t have to think about. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?

Picture of Nyla Smith

Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

More Like This...

How Nike Failed at User Testing

Business owners can learn an important lesson from Nike’s latest showing at Wimbledon. Mainly that “just do it” should never supercede “just think it through”. In this case, that means designing products with the end-user in mind; which, in the world of web design, comes in the form of user testing or user experience.

Read More »

“H” is for: Hexadecimal

Do you ever find yourself frustrated over color? For instance, do you know how to ensure that your brand colors will be consistent across every form of advertising that you use — from your print to your online marketing efforts? Here is a quick lesson that can help.

Read More »