05/07/2023 • Mike Ellis
Cognitive Load Theory explains how mental effort affects tasks and decision-making. High cognitive load decreases conversion rates in digital marketing. Cognitive load consists of working memory and long-term memory, which work together using heuristics. There are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Cognitive load impacts decision-making by causing decision fatigue, poorer decisions, or decision paralysis.
Marketers should be aware of cognitive load to optimize consumer journeys, reduce churn rate, improve customer experience, and maximise return on investment. Leveraging cognitive load can scale a business by improving conversion rates. To avoid negative impacts, marketers should constantly analyse and test user journeys, implement findings through A/B testing, and prioritise user opinions over personal opinions.
Cognitive load is all about mental effort, the amount it takes to do a particular task. It applies to every action an individual does, including making purchases.
Understanding the concept can help us to provide better customer journeys resulting in better outcomes for both brands and consumers. High cognitive load is negatively correlated with conversion rates. Meaning the higher the amount of effort needed from a user the less likely they are to take action.
However, like all things, the level of this varies from industry to industry. So let's explore it further.
Cognitive load theory was first introduced by John Sweller in 1988 and is in essence a theory of working vs long-term memory. He suggests that our working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and exceeding this level will result in overload and impair the ability of an individual to retain information.
Working memory has a limited capacity, with multiple aspects that are designed for directing attention and coordinating cognitive processes. Long-term memory on the other hand is an endless storage room of information that the working memory relies on to pull information forward.
You may have heard that on average individuals can only remember about 7 numbers at any one time. This is due to the limits of the working memory. When it comes to other tasks like comparing, organising or more complex activities this becomes limited to 2 or 3.
When an individual is presented with too much information or asked to do too much they reach overload and their learning and recall become impaired. It's at this point that they will give up on their task and move on. For marketers, this is important as it usually results in website bounces, higher exit rates and abandoned baskets.
Cognitive load however is not just about the working memory capacity. It also relies on the long-term memory and what is already stored there.
Long-term memories are stored as schemas or heuristics. These are frameworks of how the world works based on past experience.
For example, you may see a tree species you have never seen before but because you recognise the general shape, a trunk with ranches and leaves that are the right colour for the season, you can quickly use your heuristic of what a tree is confidently be able to say that that is a tree.
This can be great but also cause issues when our heuristics are incorrect. My daughter who is 2 and a half is currently calling every creepy crawly a spider. Doesnt matters whether it flies or crawls it's a spider. This is because she has created a heuristic that if it’s small, dark in colour and is alive it's a spider. Ok, so that's not a big deal but imagine this being applied to racial profiling or gender stereotypes and can see how it could become an issue.
Using these heuristics we can make sense of the world. As humans, we receive billions of pieces of information every second and to process each individually would overload us constantly. So the working memory communicates with the long-term memories to apply these heuristics to the world and reduce the load on the working memory.
So to summarise; when we are doing a task we use the working memory to process the information and make rational decisions. It communicates with the long-term memory to make sense of the information using our experience of the world and the heuristics we have created.
The cognitive load comes in many forms and can be categorised into the following 3 types:
Cognitive load has significant implications for consumers' decision-making processes. When individuals are faced with too much cognitive load, they experience overload which may cause decision fatigue, leading to poorer decisions or even decision paralysis.
When the cognitive load becomes too much for the working memory, the individual will refer to their long-term memory and the heuristics they have. At this point, a couple of things could happen;
The working memory becomes overloaded trying to connect the information it is processing to the heuristics within the long-term memory. This results in no action being taken.
With overload, the individual will incorrectly apply heuristics to the current situation resulting in poor or wrong decisions.
when the individual becomes overloaded the connection between the working memory and the long-term memory can run out of juice, resulting in zero action being taken.
Conversely to this, we can use cognitive load to result in more positive outcomes. Particularly by focusing on germane cognitive loads.
If a process is intrinsically complex like applying like many financial products. Brands can utilise germane cognitive load to enhance the user experience and support decision-making.
It's our job as marketers to not only reduce cognitive load where possible but to ultimately optimise consumer journeys. This not only results in a better outcome for the consumer but also increases conversion rates and brand affinity for brands.
Cognitive load is unavoidable, you cannot remove it from a user journey but by being aware of it you can begin to design a journey that minimises extraneous cognitive load and leverages germane cognitive load.
As marketers, we need to be aware of the main benefits that can come from optimising for the cognitive load.
We spend a lot of time trying to get people to engage with us or go to our website but so often we marketers forget to ensure we give them the right information or experience that keeps them there.
If we don’t spend effort and time addressing this we are wasting all that valuable resource, whether that’s media spend or time, in getting them there to do nothing with it.
Remember it's not about us. As marketers we forget no one wants to see our ads, they just want solutions to problems, that new outfit or to feel good. We’re the middleman.
If we can improve the customer experience we are fulfilling the promise we make in our advertising.
Most definitely not the least important aspect but the one we usually focus on. If we reduce cognitive load and improve conversion rate. We get more for our marketing spend. Maximising that all-important ROI.
We have already highlighted why marketers should focus on reducing the cognitive load above. So let's talk about a practical example.
Several years ago when I worked at a different agency we ran CRO for a client that was trying to maximise market share within their sector. They were well positioned with good products and healthy margins but it was competitive and they had no brand meaning most of their acquisition strategy was through paid media. Anything through organic media would have taken too long.
We quickly identified they had a ceiling in paid media, their conversion rate wasn’t good enough to go after the volume of traffic that was available to them.
This is where cognitive load comes in. We accessed the website and identified a boatload of improvements that can be made to maximise the customer journey and experience by reducing cognitive load.
So we did, we ran an extensive CRO programme a/b testing several changes all designed to reduce that extrinsic cognitive load and increase the conversion rate.
It did the job and we saw the conversion rate increase. And by doing this we opened up the gates to scale paid media activity through Google AdWords and Facebook and Instagram.
This increase in conversion rate resulted in a higher return on the ad spend, meaning it was more profitable to go after ‘lower quality’ traffic. So we did, taking market share from their competitors.
Then we did it again and again until then went from a £20,000 per month online retail to a £1.4million a month retailer.
By understanding the role cognitive load plays in consumer decision-making, marketers can be more effective with their efforts. Building better campaigns and getting better ROI.
It’s simple, constantly analyse and test your user journey. Do user testing, review your Google Analytics, conduct heat mapping, and analyse reviews…there are a ton of ways to understand how your users are interacting with your website. Do it and do it constantly, your business is evolving, the customer base is evolving and fast. What is true today won't be in 6 months' time. All you need to do is look at TikTok to show how much that has changed the online landscape.
Second to this, you need to implement your findings and this needs to be done through A/B testing. Don’t make assumptions based on findings, this will leave you open to cognitive bias. A/B testing is the best way to get unbiased findings as the only variable will be the change you introduce.
Finally, avoid HIPPO (the highest person's opinion). It’s common for businesses to make changes on options of this in C-suite. Because they think it looks good, will work or is best for business. But ultimately it doesn’t matter what they think. The only opinion that matters is that of your users.
If you analyse your user's journeys, a/b test the changes identified and avoid making changes based on opinion you will avoid increasing extrinsic cognitive load and improve conversion rate.
In an online world where everything is getting easier for consumers marketers need to be more conscious of the impact cognitive load has. If we understand the role it plays and account for it within our designs, website structures and campaign messaging we can take advantage of the human condition to take the ‘easy road’ and provide excellent customer service.
It’s not an easy thing to do though and does require constant testing and analysis. This is probably why marketers avoid it. It initially increases the cost of a campaign but the outcome is usually so much better. The ROI of campaigns we have ran for clients focusing on improving user journeys always outperform.
A prime example of this is our award-winning campaign with Stone Refurb.