I would like to know if there is a study made about the cognitive strain that there is (or isnt) on reading dataheavy tables. I know there is a lot of help out there for how to make tables easier to read, but is there data as to how users read the data? Does anyone know?

My theory is that if a user find it hard to read the data but still need to evaluate different values and make the decision based on these... there is a risk that the user makes decisions based on faulty assumptions. But I have no data to show for it.

Any data, link to study or general advice would be very helpful!

  • There is plenty of research on the effect of the difficulty of acquiring information on decision making. A simple summary is 'If the user can make a decision without the information and the benefit of acquiring additional information is outweighed by the difficulty of acquiring the information then the user will make the decision without acquiring additional information.' In the situation you describe, a table that is difficult to read may be ignored unless it is the only source of information on which to base a decision. Oct 14, 2014 at 14:18

4 Answers 4


I've designed and completed some usability research in the financial services industry with huge, complex data tables. What I could conclude was people who wanted data in a visualized form would make decisions based on that, so that should be prioritized above tabular data (assuming you're designing data visualization comparisons well).

My study was completed to prove taking up to 7 years of financial investment data and putting it into a mobile phone app without redesigning for format resulting in the perception of a poor user experience.

The mobile app pulled web content in and results suggested people will get scroll fatigue vertically or horizontally. However, it depends on how motivated they are to finding the specific data point they are looking for.

This was specific to investment performance data for retirement plan participants.


Is a 'dataheavy' table one with lots of columns, rows or both? I would suggest that it is the design of the table that creates the cognitive strain, causing difficulties in reading and processing the information. Well presented tables are easy to read and interpret regardless of the amount of information it contains.

Of course, if you simply wanted to reduce the number of rows it is possible to do so by putting into into a container and simply paginate through the number of entries (which creates another design issue in itself), and if you want to reduce the number of columns you can progressively disclose less important information.

So my answer is that badly designed tables are going to cause cognitive strain, and the better you can design it the less strain it should cause for the user. See discussions on table design for more ideas and tips.


It's hard to say without knowing more about the context. I would say it depends on the media used to convey the "data heavy tables". Is this related to web interfaces? Are you talking about a software application in particular?

Perhaps you could start by refining the keywords I used in this search done in Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?start=0&q=cognitive+load+reading+table&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5&as_vis=1

Good luck, Antonio


I think Anscombe clearly showed that trying to glean information straight from a table is far less useful then combining the table with a chart. Look up Anscombe's Quartet.


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