Naturally, it sounds like it is only best for our users if our design could reduce user's cognitive workload when performing a task.

However, there are also theories that explain the need for a person to perform deep processing in order for one to remember for a longer duration on using a design. The Level of Processing theory, for instance, preaches that through elaboration, a person can remember something better.

This seems to contradict because on one hand, we want to reduce user's cognitive workload. On the other hand, we want users to remember our design's usage so that they don't always have to recall (which increases memory load) its usage, but rather recognise its usage. And to do this, based on the Level of Processing theory, we should design some thing within the design, say the interface of the design, that requires the user to do some deep processing in order for him to remember. But this would then incur workload on the user's cognition.

In other words, to reduce user's memory load, we have to increase their cognitive workload as they have to perform deep processing. Then in this case, should a good design still attempt to lower a user's cognitive memory load at the expensive of increasing user's cognitive workload?

  • What's key is how much users will use the interface. A use-once interface will have different parameters to something which people sit on every day for 8 hours a day.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 14:10
  • If you follow common design language for ie. browser or desktop, your user shouldn't be pained with learning how to use your design, because its already learned. How looks a link? What does a button do? ...
    – FrankL
    Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 9:46

3 Answers 3


I think you're confusing Deep Processing, more accurately referred to as "Levels of Processing" with "lots of stuff going on at once". That's not quite it; the generally accepted reason people remember "deep" things is because they process them at multiple levels. So to remember a word instead of just seeing it on a screen you could hear the word aloud, write it down, maybe with it's meaning.

The point of levels of processing is to deepen connections with the new information; the more "links" the better. It's really not the same thing as maximizing/overloading the use of Working Memory, which is more accurately what "increasing cognitive workload" means.

If you can improve the number of possible levels of processing for an important bit of information, great. But this isn't always easy; sometimes you can ask people to write important information down (this helps with an extra level of processing, not just because it's on a dead tree now too) or give them more context to tie a new word too. People remember things better in context as well, so take advantage of that. Fun fact; you can potentially reduce student's effective memories if you give them a test in a different room from where they learned the material. It depends on how well they've learned the material of course, but it's an interesting thing to note.


I think you should look into Cognitive Task Load. Which is a model of the strain on the users cognition. The idea is that you don't want the strain to be too low so that your users become bored. Neither too high so they give up. I've studied under Mark Neerincx and he has a couple of good papers in this area.

Another good resource in my opinion is Vyvgotsky and his work on Zone of proximal development. The basic idea is that to have an efficient learning, students need to work where they can barely make progress with some supervision. By working at the edge of your current knowledge you expand your knowledge the fastest.

So in your case I would decrease or remove the strains on the cognitive memory for easy tasks. Reduce it on the very hard tasks and keep it as it is on the hard task. Some kind of adaption would be advisable as the users skills will improve over time.

Another approach is to increase the strain on the cognitive memory over time. So a first time user only has to remember a few things. But the longer they user the interface the more the strain increases. So they are always operating close to their limits and the tasks does not become routine.

Articles not behind a pay wall. For Vyvgotsky I would guess there are good books at most libraries or just searching on the net should give plenty of results.

  1. Cognitive task load
  2. Cognitive task load in user
  3. Cognitive load and the effects on learning This one I haven't read but it seems interesting at a quick glance.
  4. Ease of use and leanability
  • +1 I like the idea of increasing the cognitive work load subsequentely. Reminds me to the concept of beginner, mediate and expert mode or tutorial levels in games, where you are step by step exposed to the features.
    – FrankL
    Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 9:40
  • Do you have a link to articles of Mark Neerincx? Just found a list of citations.
    – FrankL
    Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 9:43
  • Just stumbled over an article saying studies have shown that hard readable fonts activate logical thinking brain system and content is processed actively rather than unconsious theteamw.com/2012/11/30/… Thanks for the added links
    – FrankL
    Commented Dec 1, 2012 at 16:39

Ask yourself: Do you need your users to remember? Is the goal for the user to complete the task, or to one day excel at completing the task?

The motivation for reduced cognitive load is simply making more cognitive load available for the user - or cope with lack thereof ("always assume you have only 10% of the users attention").

There are some cases wehre this does not directly apply, e.g.

You want to teach something. In this case, the general goal is to reduce cognitive load of the education UX, so most cognitive load can go to the actual material. After all, you want students to remember the material, not the acrobatics of clicking your buttons.

You want to create a "flow" experience. - at least the aspect of forgetting everything around.

At these point your question hits an interesting spot - and I can only speculate:

It can be expected that often we don't put all our attention on the topic we are supposed to (e.g. the learning material). This may be exacerbated by the multitasking cult and input saturation of modern life.

In this context, I can well imagine that capturing "side channel attention" - e.g. by using an unusual UX - may prevent the mind from wandering or reacting to other, external stimuli.

This may overlap with associating the core material with a pleasurable experience - discovering the new UX.

Still, I would argue that the cognitive load would better be allocated at the task itself. Increasing load of external aspects is only a workaround to prevent other activities from "stealing attention".

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