Cognitive Overhead


In earlier posts we have reviewed Cass Sunstein’s latest book on the need for government to simplify processes as to be more effective and participatory. David Lieb, co-founder and CEO of Bump, recently expanded upon this call for simplicity in a blog post at TechCrunch, arguing that anyone trying to engage with the public “should first and foremost minimize the Cognitive Overhead of their products, even though it often comes at the cost of simplicity in other areas”

When explaining what Cognitive Overhead means, David Lieb uses the definition coined by web designer and engineer in Chicago David Demaree:

Cognitive Overhead — “how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.”

David Lieb: “Minimizing cognitive overhead is imperative when designing for the mass market. Why? Because most people haven’t developed the pattern matching machinery in their brains to quickly convert what they see in your product (app design, messaging, what they heard from friends, etc.) into meaning and purpose.”

In many ways, the concept resonates with the so-called “Cognitive Load Theory” (CLT) which taps into educational psychology and has been used widely for the design of multimedia and other learning materials (to prevent over-load).  CLT focuses on the best conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture (where short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously). John Sweller, the founder of CLT, and others have therefore focused on the role of acquiring schemata (mind maps) to learn.

So how can we provide for cognitive simplicity? According to Lieb:

  • “Put the user “in the middle of your flow. Make them press an extra button, make them provide some inputs, let them be part of the service-providing, rather than a bystander to it.”;
  • Give the user real-time feedback;
  • Slow down provisioning. Studies have shown that intentionally slowing down results on travel search websites can actually increase perceived user value — people realize and appreciate that the service is doing a lot of work searching all the different travel options on their behalf.”

It seems imperative that anyone who wants to engage with the public (to tap into the “cognitive surplus” (Clay Shirky) of the crowd) must focus – when for instance defining the problem that needs to be solved –  on the cognitive overhead of their engagement platform and message.