I have a feeling that if you make card view or similar object that represents an item from the real world, such as a 'car' or 'person', then it causes less cognitive load than a table view - except when people specifically need a table view, such as if they need to compare different properties etc.

I have been trying to find theory that addresses this but without luck. All the material I find is about improving tables or how to fit more data by presenting it in a card view.

Perhaps I do not know the correct terms to use to describe this phenomenon and I am hoping for help here from someone who can refer to any existing theory that addresses this topic.


enter image description here

I am not looking to answer "which is better?" as the answer to that is clearly "it depends on the purpose".

Now the purpose in this example is "I need to do something with MickJigger" and I think intuitively that it will require less cognitive load to understand that the square around his name represents him.

The purpose is not for example "Find MickJigger in the list", for that the table might be better or a search or something. So I am talking about the situation when we are looking at some information and trying to understand it.

I think there is 1 step of reasoning required to understand that a person is represented by a card and 2 steps of reasoning to understand a person is represented by a row in a table.

If the question is too subtle/nuanced, you could also answer "when is a card better" and then I might be able to extrapolate the answer I'm looking for.

  • 1
    Can you add example images of a card and a table with the context you describe? This helps to visualise the doubts you have.
    – jazZRo
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 12:36
  • what @jazZRo said. I have a feeling of what you mean, but it would be nice if you can provide a mockup of how do you envision this
    – Devin
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 15:47
  • Thank you, I have added an illustration Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 13:20

2 Answers 2


Well, from a cognitive point of view, a card will be better than a table when comparing one to one. But this may change enormously depending on the amount of data.

What you're looking for is basic principles of visual design and / or Laws of Gestalt, and the principle is grouping. Consider your example image: The card's limits set the boundaries for Mick Jagger's info, so your brain will appropriately consider that card as a single entity. However, in the case of cards, the grouping is the whole set of information, namely Mick Jagger, Benny Hill, and BamTheMan plus all their respective information. Obviously, this increases the cognitive load, because now you'll need to focus on the name, on whether you're on the correct row and column. I'm sure you have seen people doing this (usually with a ruler; couldn't find a picture):

enter image description here

However, the situation changes as data starts to grow. Having a lot of cards will change focus constantly, and now the categorization for each variable has to be recalled every time. In other words, your focus "jumps" from a line in a card to another line in another card and all cards compete for attention.

At a certain point (usually when you have 50 rows or more) you'll also need to have tools that most well-designed tables have, such as filters and sorting. And while you could do this with cards as well, the process is not as straightforward and the result pattern is barely recognizable.

In short: it will strictly depend on the amount of data.

Note: if you do a Google search, you may find reference from well respected and known resources like NN/G saying the opposite. But they're "cheating" by using the worst designed card ever, as shown below:

enter image description here

Nevertheless, I'm mentioning this because a bad design could kill any theory, as shown in the image above.


I think the answer to the question, as you suggested, is that there are situations where showing data or information in one form compared to another is more likely to reduce the cognitive load. You don't really need a lot of empirical research evidence to see this (and you might not really want to read through it all), but based on some fundamental principles in visual processing you can explain some of this.

We talk about the concept of being overwhelmed with too much information, and that we can experience 'analysis paralysis' when there are more things to process than we can comfortable do it. The main reason why one design approach is to show fewer items than more items is that it is much easier to draw your attention and retain it (plus help you remember it) if there are less things than a lot of things. So a data table with tens, hundreds or thousands of items will probably scare most people off if that's not what they want to do, or they want to be told what to look at.

However, on the other hand, if you want to allow people to scan through a lot of information, then data tables are simply the most minimal way to present them to help us compare and process as much as possible. If structured correctly, they also allow you to filter and manipulate the cells while still showing as much information as possible (try doing that with cards).

You can look up the classic design patterns for cards and data tables on any design system, and find that any recommendations or best practices for design are probably centred around those purposes.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.