Eight Tips to Avoid Cognitive Overload

By August 6, 2010 Commentary

When Aron Design creates a website we are intensely aware of cognitive overload—the brains inability to process the chaos of the typical website presentation.

Avoid cognitive overload with well designed pages that promote comprehension and increase effectiveness.

Our methodology:

  1. Large, easy-to-read font with plenty of linefeed spacing
  2. Lots of white space and generous margins
  3. Avoid embedded hyperlinks in body text
  4. Avoid distracting animated gifs adjacent to body text
  5. Provide video transcripts for video content
  6. Make photos large and always include captions
  7. Keep pages single-topic—no need to conserve page count on the Web
  8. Edit text as much as possible—then cut it in half

What follows is an excerpt from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Back in the 1980s, when schools began investing heavily in computers, there was much enthusiasm about the apparent advantages of digital documents over paper ones. Many educators were convinced that introducing hyperlinks into text displayed on monitors would be a boon to learning. Hypertext would strengthen critical thinking, the argument went, by enabling students to switch easily between different viewpoints.

By the end of the decade, the enthusiasm was turning to skepticism. Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.

A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse.

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak.

The Internet is an interruption system …we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

It’s likely that Web browsing also strengthens brain functions related to fast-paced problem-solving, particularly when it requires spotting patterns in a welter of data. A British study of the way women search for medical information online indicated that an experienced Internet user can, at least in some cases, assess the trustworthiness and probable value of a Web page in a matter of seconds. The more we practice surfing and scanning, the more adept our brain becomes at those tasks.

The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself—our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the Net’s treasures, we are blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture.

Adapted from The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, copyright © 2010 Nicholas Carr to be published by W.W. Norton and Company