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How Can Product Managers Reduce Cognitive Load To Increase Feature Adoption? "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 28 April 2020 True Cognitive Load, Product Design, Product Management, Product Management Skills, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1256 Product Management 5.024
· 6 minute read

How Can Product Managers Reduce Cognitive Load To Increase Feature Adoption?

How do friction costs and Hick’s Law affect the adoption rates of product features, and how can product managers reduce a user’s cognitive load?

A number of different elements compete for an online audience’s attention. Visitors immediately have to process the navigation, layout, forms, text and images all while learning how to use a digital product.

Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort required to complete a task that requires someone to process information. According to Miller’s Law, the average person can only keep about seven items in their working memory  – where information is processed and stored. Overloading a consumer’s working memory can cause decision paralysis and lead them to abandon their journey.

Friction Cost

Friction cost refers to seemingly minor details that make a task require more effort, but have a disproportionately large effect on whether people will complete that task. Friction can take the form of anything that prevents a visitor from using a product and may include distracting information and visuals, inconsistencies in the interface, unnecessary steps, unclear navigation, unfamiliar design and confusing functions. The fewer steps involved in the journey, the less friction there is. When thinking about feature adoption, bringing up friction cost as a key operating principle may seem like such an obvious and universally known principle that it’s not worth repeating, but it is so effective when applied well that it’s worth repeating and reminding.

Tactically, apps should encourage intuitive interactions with a sense of order and logic. People are naturally visual learners, so it pays to employ videos and animation to simplify complicated concepts. The relationship between visuals and actions should be clear in order to save visitors from unnecessary physical and mental steps. Product leaders can prevent drop-offs by using graphics to distract from long wait times and personalized prompts so that the consumer feels more engaged.

Apps should encourage intuitive interactions with a sense of order and logic (Image: Shutterstock)

When introducing updates to an app, you should include guided steps to help customers navigate. These nudges can subtly lead users to try out features that enhance their experience without restricting their options. Rather than asking visitors to engage with a long series of text or questions, it can be more effective to leverage defaults and break up directions into multiple smaller actions for data-heavy tasks. This gradually initiates new consumers and allows you to clarify each step without overwhelming them.

Example: Grammarly’s Guided Tour

Grammarly is an AI-powered writing assistant that can check documents for grammatical and spelling errors via an app and Chrome extension. The service offers a guided tour to show writers how to get the most out of their offerings. By walking visitors through each action in a logical order, it prevents future problems that can lead to customer drop-offs. The seamless onboarding process helps users to become familiar with Grammarly’s features through a sample document without needing a project to be ready for proofreading.

Hick’s Law

According to Hick’s Law, the time it takes to make a decision increases with the complexity and number of choices available. This means a clean and minimal interface is preferable – so that consumers are not confronted by the Paradox of Choice. Limiting the number of options to five or less is generally a good rule of thumb. When introducing new features, you can increase adoption rates by removing unnecessary actions and steps, simplifying copy and images and making your call to action (CTA) stand out.

If you ensure consistency in language, tone, and design throughout the interface, it’s easier for the consumer to focus on your main message, and you should eliminate unnecessary tasks to hold your audience’s attention. Each bit of irrelevant information distracts users from taking the necessary steps to learn about a new feature and can cause them to develop a “banner blindness” to redundant CTAs. The goal is to remove any content that may cause friction or take focus away from more important elements on the page.

Product managers should leverage common layouts and familiar iconography to help reduce cognitive load. Using recognizable elements found in other apps such as symbols for closing, playing, sending or sharing) will reduce the amount of mental processing required from the user. Chunking is also an effective technique to organize large amounts of information in a manageable way. It groups individual pieces of visual data together to make it easier to remember. For instance, Etsy is able to display more items on its home page by grouping images in chunks according to theme or seller.

Etsy displays more items on its home page by grouping images by theme or seller (Image: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock.com)

Example: Instagram’s Explore Tab

Instagram recently removed the ‘Following’ tab in its Activity feed, with the company’s Head of Product Vishal Shah citing simplicity as “the driving factor” behind the decision. The feature was introduced in 2011 before the ‘Explore’ tab debuted, allowing users to discover new content by showing images their friends had liked. Now that Explore has established itself as the primary means of discovery, fewer people have been using the Following tab and were even surprised to discover when their activity was visible to followers.

Isolation Effect

Product teams can use the Isolation Effect (also known as the Von Restorff Effect) to their advantage when promoting updates on their interface. The theory predicts that when similar objects are presented together, the one that is different from the rest is most likely to be remembered. You can draw attention to features through highlighted tips and instructions that will stand out from an otherwise clean and minimal background.

Similarly, the Picture Superiority Effect refers to the phenomenon in which images are more likely to be remembered than text. This means that using images can speed up reaction times since visuals can convey up to six times more information than words alone. Product managers have to make important information or key actions visually distinctive. However, if you make too many different objects stand out, your audience will be distracted by the content.

Example: Evernote’s Tooltip

Evernote is a note-taking app that helps customers document and organize their ideas. It uses a blue Tooltip to educate users about relevant features (such as reminders that they can customize stacks by adding and removing notebooks, renaming their stacks and creating shortcuts). The notification also includes a link for more detailed instructions, so the message is concise and to the point.

Evernote uses a blue Tooltip to educate users about relevant features (Image: Shutterstock)


Just like a computer can crash when it’s running too many programs, consumers can abandon your product as soon as they get overwhelmed. Cognitive load will be increased when your interface lacks clarity, offers too many choices, or requires too much effort to complete a task. Each of these factors can be taxing on a visitor’s working memory, which can only handle a limited amount of information.

However, you can ensure that your audience doesn’t become distracted by avoiding unnecessary design elements and leveraging familiar patterns to reduce friction. Product leaders can use a clean and minimal background to their advantage by highlighting the most important CTA through eye-catching pop-ups and animation. Every task you eliminate leaves the user with more working memory to focus on your most important features.

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