There’s no doubt the wired world takes a toll on our brains. Between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and reading the occasional article, being online feels like a full-time gig. And that’s on top of the job we’re paid to do – when the two aren’t overlapping.
That’s why your customer onboarding process must be as frictionless as possible. By the time users make it to your site, the sign-up system had better feel like a breeze, or they’ll navigate away. A seamless onboarding process drives high conversion rates, ensuring that users don’t abandon you because of a mentally strenuous UX design. And the basis of all great onboarding strategies is a well-managed cognitive load.
Cognitive load refers to the mental energy required to complete a given task. Researchers began studying cognitive load in the late 1980s, applying it to instructional learning design. Their findings now influence all aspects of great UX development, which uses variations on three particular loads – motor, visual, and cognitive – to create optimal site experiences.
Every interaction customers have with your brand costs them something, and they don’t have bottomless mental wallets. From sidebar text to a video, customers’ brains make constant judgment calls on whether they need to pay attention or can ignore certain information. Overload the page with visuals, text, and CTA buttons, and customers may decide your product isn’t worth the effort. But strike the right balance, and users will happily sign on with your brand.
Let’s break down the three loads inherent in any design.
Theoretically, motor load is the least demanding. Users are so accustomed to clicking through site links and sign-up pages, they do it almost without thinking – if the design is executed correctly. However, links that are placed too close together, and unclear, hard-to-use buttons raise the motor load considerably. Users may try to select one option but click another that’s positioned inappropriately close by instead.
Radio buttons, small circles that represent exclusive choices and require users to toggle between possible responses, can be particularly nightmare-ish on smartphone screens, where small buttons and large fingers often clash. The more frustrating it is to input information, the higher chance of the customer giving up altogether.
Photos, videos, graphics, typeface, font size, and color scheme all influence the visual load. A text-heavy page without images or subheads to guide content flow can turn visitors off as much as too many competing elements, such as videos and garish color schemes. An elegant, restrained design gives users only the necessary elements, packaged in complementary colors and a logical content path.
Consider the function and design of each component through users’ eyes. If you have a button, does it clearly indicate the option or action it represents? Does the sidebar complement or detract from the main copy? Are there too many bright red elements screaming for your attention? All of these raise the cognitive expense for users, and your bottom line bears the cost.
Anything that requires involved thought, such as reading copy or filling out a form, adds to the cognitive load. Because these actions demand more attention than the visual and motor aspects, cognitive load is the most expensive of the three and is especially important to get right.
Large amounts of copy on a landing page are both visually off-putting and cognitively heavy. Users want clear, actionable information that tells them what to do next. They respond best to a streamlined, intuitive experience that respects their time and gives them digestible information in a visually appealing way.
Similarly, the cognitive load rises with every custom question on a data input form. A query as simple as “What year were you born?” becomes considerably more strenuous when it changes to “What year did you turn 18?” Users must stop what they’re doing to mentally calculate the years or search their memory banks for a significant event from that year that gives them a clue. You can see how this becomes frustrating, especially since your development team can write an algorithm into the code that calculates the information for you, rather than interrupting users during the onboarding process.
You always want to minimize the cognitive ask unless increasing it improves the experience. A simple, intuitive calculator demands more cognitive activity than an image or short form, but it may enhance the process and create a stronger link with your brand. Evaluate the costs and benefits of each element on the page.
Develop a Load Management Strategy
If you’re feeling overloaded yourself right now, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through the process of analyzing your cognitive loads and help you improve your user experience in this series. Here’s how you can get started right now:
- Review your onboarding process.
- Identify the cognitive load.
- Determine opportunities for engagement.
By identifying your current cognitive load, you can optimize your system, tweaking the amount of mental engagement to improve user experience and your conversion rate.
In our next post, we’ll dive deeper into how to achieve this by collecting the user data you need in the onboarding process.