Cognitive overload – i.e. ‘my brain hurts’

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)



Tablets are changing websites

> on November 6, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.I’ve ranted on at length about the way people process information when they view the website, but the advent of tablets is beginning to change how we behave online.

I’ve always been phobic about very long pages that people have to scroll a lot to read, but with tablets a sweep of the finger makes it easy – in fact, much easier than it is to tap menu tabs.  One of my clients is going down the route of a single long scrollable page with sections featuring the content that would normally be on separate pages.  However, he’s also installing a menu that takes the site visitor to the right ‘page’ if they choose to tap the menu tab instead.

It’s all about how we use our viewing devices.  Not so many years ago website menus were on the left – I’m not sure why as that it is the furthest point from where most people’s cursor sits when using a traditional computing set up.  I’d hazard a guess that someone used ‘reading logic’ and thought it should be where the eyes go first.  That was before it was discovered that we don’t read websites like the equivalent paper document, however, our eyes do tend to go the left first – to read, but when we want to take action it’s not the natural place for the mouse to go.

Most of us ‘park’ the mouse on the right near the scroll bar, so it would make sense to have the menu on the right – but in tests right hand menus are often not recognised as menus.  We’ve learned that menus are on the left, or more commonly today a horizontal bar underneath the brand banner.  But now we have the ability to move things around with a sweep of a finger things are changing.  Big blocks are much easier to tap than skinny little hyperlinks in the text, scrolling is easier than tapping menu tabs, the way we scan is different on a tablet to a traditional fixed screen.

What does this mean for your website?

That’s a really tough one to answer.  A good web developer will ensure your site is optimised for both phone and tablet, but short of designing two completely different websites it’s difficult to sit comfortably on the fence between desktop and tablet.  If you’re creating a new website then choose your designer and developer very carefully and ask them the questions about how their proposed design will behave on a tablet or phone.  It’s no longer an optional extra – tablets are becoming the way we work.

P.S.  As a copywriter I have to mention content – and it’s still a critical factor in how the search engines rank your site.  A clever design will allow you to have both user flexibility and sufficient specific and relevant content to get your site the right kind of brownie points on Google, Bing and the others.


Why your website is like a three-legged stool

3 legged stoolWe all know what happens if you take away a leg from a three-legged stool – it falls over!  But what has this got to do with your website?

Successful websites have three main ‘legs’ on which they stand.  They are:

  • The design and development – what makes the site look good and work efficiently so that the visitor’s perception and experience is positive.
  • The message – so that the visitor easily understands what’s on offer and how it benefits them without having to make too much of an effort.
  • Traffic – a website that has few visitors is an expensive tool.  The more visitors that have a real interest in the services or products on offer, the better.

Some people will argue that design and development are two separate issues – and they are – but they are both part of the construction of the site and closely integrated.  The design needs to reflect the business brand, whilst also making it easy for visitors to find their way around without unnecessary distraction, confusing layout or too creative use of graphics.  The developer is responsible for making the design work so that links go where they are meant to and the site works as the designer intended it to.

The challenge arises when the designer hasn’t sat in the shoes of the potential site visitor and makes assumptions about how they behave.  Actual testing with real users almost always reveals that their behaviour is rarely what the designer envisaged.

  • They expect things to be in certain places and often can’t find them if they’re not where they’re looking – even if they are actually on the page somewhere else.  
  • They’re easily distracted and quickly irritated by intrusive graphics that stop and start, or blinking boxes the keep drawing the eye from what they wanted to look at.
  • They are lazy and won’t work very hard to find things that aren’t immediately obvious and give up quite easily (men quicker than women usually!)

Then there’s the message.  The writer needs to thoroughly understand the potential customer; what they are interested in, what they want, what their problems are, what will make them feel good.  The content needs to reflect this – and in terms that are completely reader-focused.  So not ‘we do …’, but ‘you get …’ and the language needs to draw pictures in the mind of the reader of themselves experiencing what is on offer.  We all have that internal ‘video’ that runs the moment the word ‘you’ is mentioned!

The message does not need to explain exactly how the site owner does what they do – any more than most of us want a blow-by-blow account of what the mechanic is going to do to our car to get it back on the road.  We just want to know by when and how much.  The important issues to us is getting around, getting the kids to school, arriving at meetings on time, getting to the station in the morning – and that’s what a really smart garage will focus on.

Then there’s getting traffic – lots of visitors arriving at the website.  Not just any visitors, but visitors who have demonstrated an interest in what the site offers.  SEO uses lots of clever behind-the-scenes activities to tell the search engines what each page is about as well as working with the copywriter on well-written, specific and relevant content.

A good SEO expert is worth their weight in gold, but to a layperson identifying who is good and who isn’t is a difficult decision to make.  I’d advise asking to look at 3-4 sites that they have recently worked on and also asking to talk to the site-owners about the performance.  Try putting yourself in a potential client’s shoes and see if the site works for you as a visitor.

Of course, there are other means of bringing traffic to the site – and you can influence these yourself including:

  • Social media posts – with links
  • Regular blogs on your own site and on others – with links
  • Your web address in your email signature and on all your stationery and marketing material, paper and electronic
  • Make sure that all your social media profiles and forum signatures also have your web address and links where possible too.

None of this is difficult – but consistency is essential.

So – how strong are the legs on your stool?




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