Cognitive load challenges of online learning

January 2021 - Matt Edwards

When approaching projects from a UX (user experience) perspective, we always need to be aware that as humans, we are inherently lazy, and we are always searching for the path of least resistance.

This is just as relevant if not more, when we are designing for the online digital environment. As users, we don’t want to overthink… so reducing cognitive load is at the forefront of our design decisions if we are to have a user friendly and successful online learning experience.

We are constantly taking in information through our senses. Our brains are spending more time syphoning out the information we don’t need, than taking it in. When engaging with online content, the websites and experiences we prefer the most, are the ones that feel natural and flow with little effort. Less distraction and more familiarity create less cognitive load and this makes for a better user experience.


To simplify things (I’m reducing your cognitive load now) if we split the brain into two halves, the left is system 1 and the right is system 2. We spend most of, if not all our time in system 1. This is where tasks feel natural and comfortable; we do not really have to think about it. This is where we prefer to be. You could call it a kind of ‘autopilot’. System 2 however is where we have to think, and slow things down. Where we have to complete a task, learn a new skill, or approach something for the first time. As humans we don’t like system 2, we want to stay in system 1… and this is where the fundamental challenge of designing for online learning first attracted me.

When designing for online users, success dictates that we need our users to be in system 1 as much as possible. However, the whole point of learning is that users will need to be thinking, overthinking, and thinking some more which means they will have to instead be engaging in system 2. System 2 throws us out of our comfort zone to learn new stuff or challenge pre-conceived ideas. So how do we create and balance a user-friendly experience and successful online learning platform?

Within Educational Enterprise we have designed a system and methodology that’s based around transitioning. Our users are subconsciously transitioning in and out of system 1 and system 2 throughout the learner journey.

We want the environment to appear familiar. This is where we have used pre-existing users mental models, online usability good practice and design psychology to keep our users in system 1 as long as possible. This now allows our users to give 100% to system 2 when completing their learning tasks and activities, all of which have already been pre-designed and placed within the learner journey.

We can even start to break down these individual learning activities with the same process. As much as possible, we design the activities so the user is in system 1 for as long as possible, allowing the users to then transition into system 2 and submerge 100% into the thinking and task presented within it. This subconscious transitioning allows the online user to fully utilise there learning potential, whilst at the same time keeping them in what appears a free-flowing and natural experience. 


So how can we reduce cognitive load not only in the online environment but any other user facing areas or user touch points? Below we have added some takeaway points that should help.

Take away points – reducing cognitive load.

  1. Create a familiar experience
    Users are more at ease with tasks or experiences that feel familiar.
  2. Create consistency
    Your experience has to be consistent within itself. Lack of consistency will increase cognitive load as users have to think more about layouts and naming conventions.
  3. Provide a simple and clear user interface and experience
    More content and elements will only increase more of a mental effort and increase cognitive load
  4. Make your users happy
    If you can pre-prime your users to be happy and relaxed prior to engagement (first contact points) the cognitive process will feel more natural and free-flowing.
  5. Accept learners are not always going to be comfortable
    Learning something new takes us out of our comfort zone so learners can be a little confused, demotivated and nervous. This is perfectly natural and part of learning in system 2.


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