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)



5 tips on clicking and scrolling

Keyboard and mouseNo – not rocking and rolling – but the on screen equivalent!  Someone, somewhere made a ‘rule’ that you should be able to arrive at the page you want in no more than three clicks.  Then someone else also made a ‘rule’ that said a menu should not have more than nine or ten tabs on it.  If you have a website with a great deal of information the three click rule isn’t going to work here!

Then there’s yet another ‘rule’ that says that people won’t read more than two screens down a web page – so that means that pages have to have a small amount of information.  Besides, who decides how big the reading screen is?  In today’s world of smartphones, tablets, wide screens and notebooks how long is a screen?  Establishing where the ‘fold’ occurs is almost impossible.

So what is a poor website owner to do?  Here are my tips:

1.  Think carefully about the structure of your website before you start adding content (ideally before you ask a designer to create the visuals).

  • What is a logical arrangement of pages so that people can find what they are looking for easily?  
  • More clicks are better than more menu tabs, which many people just find overwhelming.  
  • However, the subpages need to be found under main menu choices that are obvious.

2.  Ensure you are clear on the purpose for each page .

  • What do you want your website visitor to DO when they’ve looked at the page?
  • How much information do you really need to give them in order to persuade them to do that?  
  • Only include the essentials – people don’t need to know how you do what you do, only what they get.  
  • And don’t forget your call to action.

3.  Don’t bury key pages in sub menus

  • You should include Home, About and Contact on the main menu.  
  • Also anything that you want people to find easily – FAQs, Case studies, blog.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t also link to these pages from other pages further down the pecking order on your menu, but if you think people will want to get to those quickly, put them where they can see them.

4.  Don’t fall into the trap of clever page names – stick to the obvious, it cuts down on people having to think about whether that page is what they think it is.  Some may not bother!

5.  If you have five services don’t create a page where they are all on a single page, one below the other.  

  • If they don’t see what they are looking for in the first screen or two, some people won’t bother to scroll any further and you could miss out on a lead.
  • Blogs and articles can have longer pages – people expect to see these on a scrollable page.

Just because tablets and smartphones are easier to scroll on don’t assume that everyone is viewing your site on one of these.  Acknowledge web-users comfort zones.  Make it easy for people to get around your site and it will work much  better for you.


Making sure your message gets through

I’m back on my soapbox about the importance of not only delivering the message that your potential client will respond to, but also presenting it in a way that makes it easy for them to see and process.

After looking at many websites that start with ‘Welcome to our website’ or, worse still, no headline in any prominent position, I wonder what is going on in the heads of some web designers and site owners.  When we’re all so busy there are just a few seconds (not many) before the site visitor gives up, hits the back button and looks at another option on the list.

This also applies to hard copy documents, but there is much more to think about, including how people handle different types of document.

Let’s start with getting the message right

You need to be clear about what your website visitor wants – not what you want to tell them.  If you’re not sure ask a few existing clients what they would be looking for if they were trying to find a new supplier; what is really important to them?

Once you have this information you can use it to deliver the right message.

Remember every page needs a headline, you never know where people will land.  If they have searched for a particular product or service they may arrive on the page that features that, not on the home page.

Focus on ‘you’ (your visitor), not ‘we’ (your company) and be sure to address the ‘what’s in it for me’ throughout the copy.

Now the presentation

Key things to remember:

  • One dominant headline, not several confusing different messages in many boxes, banners and sidebars competing for attention.  It doesn’t mean you can’t have boxes and sidebars, it just means that one headline has to stand out from the rest.
  • Fast moving images can irritate.  If moving images are important ensure they change gently and subtly so they don’t distract your reader when they’re trying to read the content.
  • All capitals are harder to read, stick to sentence case for headlines – as big and bold as necessary.  Never use capitals for main copy.
  • Dark backgrounds make it harder to read the main copy.  Big bold headlines are fine, but light writing on a dark background creates dazzle and makes it much harder for people to actually take on board the message.
  • Justified text encourages people to get lost in paragraphs as there is no shape for the eye to ‘bookmark’ and results in people rereading the same line or skipping a line.  It can also produce ugly gaps between words.
  • Stick to a clean sans serif font (e.g. Verdana, Arial, Tahoma), screen resolution makes this much easier to read.  Serif fonts like Times, Garamond and Palatino tend to look a bit fuzzy making reading slower.
  • Don’t use more than one column of text for your message – people won’t scroll back up to the next column and you never know where the page is going to break with so many different screen sizes today.

Don’t assume that a web designer will know all this – it’s not generally taught as part of their training.  This is a web designer’s site that breaks most of the above ‘rules’!

Black background and caps



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