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)



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?




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.


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