UX writing

How to strategically use cognitive load in UX writing

You know when you're trying to hold everything in your head at once? That's called cognitive load, and it's a troublesome thing in UX.
cognitive load ux
cognitive load ux
In: UX writing, Best practices

If you're like me, you can't hold a lot in your head at once. And, for me, breaking into my late-twenties only made it worse (I'm not old, am I?)

Well, we're not alone (or I'm not alone) — juggling thoughts, tasks, and requirements is totally normal, and it even has a fancy name: Cognitive load.

Cognitive load is, basically, everything you’re trying to hold in your head at once.

“Good” UX writing does everything it can to reduce the user’s cognitive load. That way, they can do more without thinking about it.

There are 4 strategies to reduce cognitive load:

  1. Put the value first
  2. Use consistent language
  3. Reduce options
  4. Chunk content

1. Put the value first

This is pretty much what it sounds like — you put the thing someone will care about before the nitty-gritty.

For example, instead of:

Enter your email to win a lifetime Disneyland membership.

You put the value, a lifetime Disneyland membership, first, like this:

To win a lifetime Disneyland membership, enter your email.

When you put the value first, it makes it clear if the information that follows is interesting, relevant, and, frankly, worth someone’s time.

2. Use consistent language

This may sound nitpicky, but users pick up on if you’re saying “Next” and then, suddenly, say “Continue.” What changed? Where does “Continue” go that “Next” didn’t?

Consistent language gives users peace of mind and lets them recognize language instead of having to recall it (👋 hi there, heuristics.)

This is why style guides are so important — they ensure the whole company uses consistent language, so the user can quickly and easily pick up on patterns, lowering their cognitive load.

3. Reduce options

It’s a bit of a conundrum: Users want a lotta options, but too many options will send them spinning.

According to Hick’s Law, the more options a user has, the more time they will take to make a decision.

Think of each option as a bright flashing light. Too many bright flashing lights will overstimulate the user and leave them pretty much without sight for three days.

To fight decision paralysis, you can:

  1. Eliminate options when possible
  2. Group multiple options in umbrella categories

You see this a lot on websites like Amazon, which have pretty wide product selections.

cognitive load ux
Image credit: roundpeg

4. Chunk content

Too much content will pull the user's brain in too many directions. You gotta learn how to organize it, so that you don’t strain users.

George Miller has a tactic called chunking. When you chunk, you group data to make it easy to remember.

An easy IRL example of chunking is a phone number — it’s broken into country code, area code, a set of three digits, and a set of four digits. That’s because a string of 11 or more numbers would be too hard to memorize.

Or think of a book without chapters. Without the chapters, everything kind of blends together, and it’s really hard to internalize your progress. Chapters are a form of chunking that help you organize information and offload cognition.

Chunking in UX writing involves short paragraphs, heavy-handed use of headlines and subheadlines, and ample empty space.

Netflix does a good job of chunking here:

cognitive load ux
Image credit: UX Collective

By utilizing a clear headline, subheadline, and concise body copy, there’s a ton of empty space for the brain to process and comprehend.

Happy UX writing 🖖

Written by
Slater Katz
As founder of The UX Gal, my mission is to make learning UX writing fantastically-simple and landing a job easy. I've held UX writing jobs at companies like Netflix, Fitbit, Verizon, Afterpay, & more.
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