Design for Cognition

Illustration that shows the relationship between Working Memory, Intrinsic, Germane, and Extraneous

The Bad News

  • As soon as the sum of intrinsic, germane, and extraneous stimulus exceeds our working memory and overwhelms our attention, all bets are off for learning or the use of information.
  • It is surprisingly easy to overwhelm someone’s cognitive load-working memory, which only has room for 5–9 items, and only 2–4 of them can be processed simultaneously.
  • Our attention is what filters input selecting what will receive further processing. If the input is not noticed and pulled into working memory within 15 seconds, it is discarded.
  • Lastly, it isn’t until our 3rd review of new information that we are likely to retain it on a long-term basis.

The Good News

This model gives us some useful design parameters. We can be purposeful in communicating and teaching so that we are sensitive to how our brains work.

  1. Remove everything extraneous or that does not convey meaning-this often means visually removing something like a logo, but can also relate to things like music playing.
  2. Key ideas should be repeated and repeated consistently.
  3. Unattach yourself from research, detailed technical information, and context-strip your content down to key ideas for a specific user or audience. What do they need to know to use this? What can they take in?
  4. Do not use only one mode of input (this leads to overwhelm quickly), but convey meaning through text, visual elements, movement, audio, etc.
  5. When using multiple input modes, they should carefully orchestrate to create a single message (not add to extraneous load). For example, place the text for an image right next to that image.


The Count the Kicks app teaches women to count the kicks of their unborn child near the end of pregnancy to prevent stillbirth. Their materials needed to be appropriate for various audiences, languages, and literacies.

Screenshots from Count the Kicks app

To minimize extraneous load

  • no bubble letters in the heading (hard to read)
  • single color in headings

To support germane load

  • Color blocks behind single ideas to help eyes group information
  • images are for communication of the text immediately next to them (not just for interest or engagement)
  • far less text overall
  • list limited to three items
  • illustrations leave room for a mom to see herself in them

To focus intrinsic load

  • only the information relevant to a mother and her ability to take action
  • no statistics, no long explanations, no frequently asked questions
More screenshots from the Count the Kicks app



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We are strategists, designers and evaluators. We help people see what needs changing and envision a new future