Digital Cognitive Overload: It’s key!

Digital Cognitive Overload or DCO…wait, what? DCO is what happens when humans use a multitude of devices (screens) and apps in the run of a day. I’ve also seen it rarely factored in with UX/UI design with both tech startups and established software companies I advise with, but it is extremely important to consider.
For knowledge workers who spend most of their day in front of a screen, cognitive overload is something they experience every day. This isn’t screen fatigue. That’s largely caused by the continuous largely imperceptible flickers of a computer screen. It strains the eyes and leads to headaches and is fairly well known and a reason many coders prefer a dark mode setting for their apps.
Cognitive overload comes from constantly switching between different apps and UI’s in the run of the day. It’s likely the average knowledge worker or just consumer, will use a smartphone and laptop/desktop each day and may well use a tablet. Increasingly, we are seeing active monitors in restaurants, on elevators, in waiting rooms and the screens in our cars.
Each app is carefully crafted by skilled UX/UI designers. Their goal is to help the user complete the task/workflow as easily and as fast as possible. Social media apps use design techniques to keep you active and coming back, which most of us know but ignore and stay tuned anyway.
Take a step back yourself and consider your daily use of software and the range of screens you engage with and the input methods you use (mouse, trackpad, touch, facial, voice) to interact with those tools. You likely use word processing tools (e.g. Word or Google Docs), spreadsheets, task list apps, various mobile apps and whatever you have going on in your browser.
Each of these screens and thus the apps that run on them have constraints. From size to input (touch, type etc.) to quality of screen, processing speed of the device, location and wireless speeds. All factors a designer considers.
But software designers, especially in startups, rarely consider all the other tools a human uses in the run of a day. Google, Apple, Microsoft all have their own design language that they use. Some symbols and GUI’s are fairly universal and easy to figure out.
But when you have a person switching rapidly and constantly between different design approaches and methodologies, by the end of the day, you can end up with DCO. Your brain spends a lot of time switching gears depending on the app you’re in and thus productivity time is lost and it may be harder to get on track.
Startups would do well to consider DCO when developing their UX/UI. Consider the screen type, device limitations and look at what other tools a user of your app might be likely to interact with and that can help guide your design to reduce DCO and help the individual be more productive and enjoy your app. A deeper understanding of a users workflow in total can help improve an initial beta launch and subsequent iterations.
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