Appendix B
Episode 022 -

UX Principles: Cognitive Load and Effective Communication

Appendix B Episode 22, text is present that reads, "UX Principles: Cognitive Load and Effective Communication"

Why should university websites use negative space and be simple in their design?
In Part Three of our series on UX Principles, Kristin and Joel chat about how excessive complexity and cognitive load can make for a poor user experience. When a potential student can’t figure out how to navigate a university website, they might associate that frustration with the institution itself, and abandon their plans to enroll. 
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Carl Gratiot:
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. On this week’s episode, we have the third and final installment of our three-part series on UX principles, Cognitive Load and Effective Communication. And now here are your hosts, Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Kristin Van Dorn:
So Joel, we’ve been talking about white space, and this is our third episode in the series.

The first episode we kind of put out a lay of the land, and then we talked about how negative space impacts a user experience from the idea that if you’re compromising their cognitive load, you may be damaging their experience from like an ethical trauma-informed lens. The second episode, we focused more on that why does white space feel more luxurious or more hospitable?

And so this one I think we’re gonna get into some of the basic psychology on why you might want more negative space in your design.

Joel Goodman:
Yeah, I’m excited because I always want more negative space in my design. And, I think this is an important topic because along the lines of Higher Ed being about education, I mean it is education.

This is a tool that goes into helping people learn, helping people understand better what’s going on in your website, and then helping them ultimately make those decisions.

Kristin Van Dorn:
I would say I emphatically agree, especially because I want our web environments to feel a little bit like we’re giving someone a peek into what it’ll be like to be a student.

And so if we can make our web environments easier to master, easier to learn, then I think they would have the feeling that your education’s also going to be a smooth experience. Let me start off by saying, you know, they’ve done a lot of different kinds of studies about, memorability, like how easy is it to memorize something or take information in and be able to walk away and repeat it, and wouldn’t you know that the simpler and fewer items you give someone to remember, the easier it is for them to walk away and have a good sense of what it was that they just heard or experienced.

Joel Goodman:
It makes me think of all my friends that back in the day were reading the Game of Thrones books and they would have to like, keep a list of all the characters on the side because there were just so many things being thrown at them at the beginning, and it was the only way that they could make it through the rest of the story because they had to constantly go back and reference their list of like, wait, who is this person?

Like when did they, you know, you simplify those things. I mean, given Game of Thrones is meant to do that, but like, it doesn’t seem like a good experience for a university website, right?

Kristin Van Dorn:
Okay. So there are cognitive tests that show that, for example, reading novels, they tend to be very good for heading off symptoms of dementia or delaying the onset of dementia because you have to track so many fictional characters at a time.

Joel Goodman:
Are we trying to do that with our websites? LOL.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Fending off dementia! No. But, what I would say though is that that is sort of like this side effect of the reading experience and that side effect could be positive or negative. And so when you’re asking someone to evaluate your education based on a website and the value that they might get from it, when you add in the side effects of complexity that’s pulling demand from your cognition, then you’re reducing the capability of them making informed decisions of them, you know, pulling in the content and evaluating the content on its own.

Joel Goodman:
And so it’s sort of like, if there’s too much there, they may get the wrong idea about what message you’re trying to put in front of them.

And the difference between reading a novel and visiting a university website is that we need someone to take an action, that we need to lead them and guide them towards taking an action, and that path needs to be very clearly laid out at the beginning and continue to be clear all the way through.

It’s communication versus building a world. And there’s another idea in there, like how you build a world within Higher Ed, but it’s definitely not going to be as complicated as, you know, 900 to 1500 page novel.

Kristin Van Dorn:
So I’m sure most listeners are familiar with the work of Robert Cialdini.

The guy that talks a lot about persuasion and he’s done studies where, you know, you set up a table at a grocery store with three different types of jam and then you ask people if they’d like to try samples for 18 types of jam and you offer free samples, and that it turns out they’ll make a lot more sales with just three types than they would with 18.

Our assumption is that our customers want the full range of possibilities thrown at them at once, so they can decide the most bespoke, most meant for them item on that table. But the truth is, is that it overwhelms them with choice and then they can’t evaluate the differences between those flavors in the same way that they could if there’s only three available for them to choose between. I’m not saying hide your assets or anything like that.

Like, oh, let’s, just only offer them business programs, medical programs, or education programs, nothing like that. But what I’m saying is that experience of having a few things to choose from versus many things to choose from, changes the way that they figure out how to use your site. So if you’re giving them too many paths to go down, they might feel like, oh, I don’t have the time to explore all of those today, so I’m just not going to, and they’ll leave your site and they may not come back.

They may forget to, they may find a competitor of yours and their experience is easier to navigate and it’s already been planned out for them. And because it doesn’t feel like it’s gonna be a time consuming cognitive load on them, they just go with that.

Joel Goodman:
Well it’s interesting too because we talk a lot about differentiation in Higher Ed and how institutions can differentiate each other or from each other.

And you know, the reality of this is that your prospective students, and you know, the parents of of prospective undergrads are probably looking at more than just your institution. And so they’ve got a complexity of a bunch of universities and colleges that look the same. And then when they get onto your website, if it looks just as complex or more complex, like you’re just kind of compounding that level of cognitive load, right?

Like they’re already full of all these different websites and then it’s, you know, you’re adding more complexity on top of it. That’s not good for their decision making. It’s not good for you making your case as to why you are the best choice for that student, you know, going back to the, the jam idea, right?

When you go down a supermarket aisle, like even when you’re looking at the shelves of jams, like the brands are different and they do a good job of separating themselves out and saying, you know, this is the one that you want, I think actually about the jam that we buy, there’s a lot of white space in the labeling, you know, and it’s there on a shelf with a ton of other jams that are all crammed next to each other and, you know, gingham style checked labels, and Welch’s with the bright purple and all that sort of stuff. But these just have a simple white label with a lot of space in between them, and we buy that jam because it feels like an oasis a little bit within the desert, but also it’s great jam, but I think that relates to how an institution should approach this as well. It’s that you are, if you’re not doing a good enough job differentiating yourself, that’s one problem. But if someone gets to your website and you’re just increasing that complexity in terms of figuring out who you are because you’ve put a lot of information on the page, all really close together, and it’s hard to suss out the actual points that you’re trying to communicate, it doesn’t do you any favors. And it definitely is gonna leave someone feeling overwhelmed with what’s there.

Kristin Van Dorn:
So education can be overwhelming for a lot of different reasons, but we don’t want our websites to be one of them, right? We want people to feel like they’re gonna get a sense for what it’s like to be on our campus. They’re gonna get a sense for what it’ll be like when they’re a student, they’ll get a sense of the value that they’ll get out of the education and the process, and that it’ll be worth having gone through it in the end.

Those are the key things that you want people to walk away from your site with, and if you make that hard, then they’ll feel like, okay, well this website is too tricky. I can’t figure it out, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a student here.

Carl Gratiot:
Thank you so much for listening to Appendix B. We really appreciate you. If you wanna learn more about Bravery and hear more of our hot takes, please head over to our website at and we will see you next week. Thank you!