How can we handle the user’s cognitive load during decision-making?

It is not an easy task.

Taking care of our user’s cognitive effort requires a thorough study and knowledge of broad subjects that help us to understand how the human mind works. The crossing of information between the humanities and the neurosciences is getting more and more important for our daily task: reduce the friction between Man and Machine.

Sealed within the dark, silent chamber of your skull, your brain has never directly experienced the external world, and it never will. Instead, there’s only one way that information from out there gets into the brain. Your sensory organs—your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin—act as interpreters. 

David Eagleman 

Continuously, scientists, doctors, philosophers, and designers are investigating and studying several models and frameworks to reveal the understanding of when humans are faced with a decision-making situation. Recently I have spent a large part of my time researching and reading about the subject to answer some professional challenges – supporting critical decision-making situations – considering the entire bibliography, I can summarize that the human being, our user, is based on three stages before the final decision. Widely called “Input → Analyze/Decide → Output”. I’ll present now my summary points of view of the whole investigation and the corresponding three stages.

The first stage is what I understand as “contact”, the input, or with the most known term: the perception. Broadly based on perception principles, the phase in which the user is faced with a situation. Deeply visceral with captures the user’s first emotional impression.

The second stage is undoubtedly the most complex, the pinnacle of the user’s and the UX Designer’s cognitive demand when creating the correct flow to keep the user in line with future perspectives of interaction. At this stage we are in the understandable and the decision phase. Our main goal, as UX Designers at this point, is to keep the user within their perfect perception and don’t compromise the difficulty of making a decision. After capturing the user’s attention in the previous stage, we should give now some time for the interpretive capacity, in which the user applies different types of validation to his decision: preference, inhibition, or the most logical and procedural.

  • The preference is related to the fact that there is a decision made in favor of a personal and/or professional will: “I always prefer to copy and paste with shortcuts” instead of doing the right-click context menu options when I click on top of a file/element, for instance.
  • The inhibition, to the detriment of an intrinsic or legal force, the prohibition to follow a decision based on a psychological, technical, or legal limitation: “I prefer to do the manual operation because the scheduling and the automatic operations are constantly blocking the system”.
  • Finally, the procedural decision, which is based on logical principles: “I will cancel the orders, I have been checking the stock and we do not need more items. So we will save about 3,000€ this month.”

The third and final stage for making a decision is the final action. And just as in the physical world, interventional action can be taken (option 1 or option 2…), or simply take no action at all. We chose hundreds of actions daily that don’t involve a great deal of cognitive effort, but most of them do.

Thus, we can conclude that the level of cognitive effort is undoubtedly related to the importance of decision making, but there is definitely a set of previous stages that must be taken into account so that our user has full awareness of the parameters, pros, and cons of its action. The level of focus, present in the figure above, must be worked on to help delegate and control the user’s attention during the activity. Controlling the user’s focus is balancing the cognitive effort associated with each task and decision. Managing fatigue during the day of use, activating, and deactivating this alert state will allow the user to filter distraction, prioritize, and organize their involvement with each of the micro-interactions with the product.



  • Park, C. W., & Alderman, J. (2018). Designing across senses: A multimodal approach to product design. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
  • Park, C. W., & Alderman, J. (2018). Designing across senses: A multimodal approach to product design. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
  • Eyal, N., & Hoover, R. (2019). Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. S.l.: Portfolio/Penguin.
  • Kahneman, D. (2015). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

João Lima

→ UX Design Guru at Critical TechWorks - BMW Group
→ uiux.pt Founder
→ UX Teacher

1 comment

  • Great insights João, thank you. Also of interest I would recommend taking a look into the concept of “Situation Awareness”, by Mica Endsley, and Situation Awareness Demons (or stressors) from same author and the work of John Sweller on Cognitive Load Theory, as a follow up on this discussion.