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How to drive growth with Cognition Design

Fay Qi

You don't need a high budget or a fancy marketing team to get customers. As a fair, transparent and instant promotion platform, doko invites experts in the fields of branding, advertising and marketing to share their experiences so you too can successfully build a brand and grow your business.

Do you know that Booking.com owns 17% of Ctrip? Do you know that Booking.com has the highest conversion rate world wide? Read “how to drive growth with cognition design” from the senior mobile UI designer at Booking.com now. Especially recommended to those designers or bosses who are full of their own ideas!


Cognition is a combination of identification and understanding, both belong to brain activities. In another word, cognition is how people understand things.

For instance, when people cross streets on green signal. They first identify the green signal, then understand that it's ok to cross. This is a typical cognition process.

When people use a website, cognitive brain functions are activated. Website fonts, layout and elements trigger the brain to apply past experience to the site. On the other hand, and most of time, designers design with their cognition as well.

I'm going to share with you a few cognition related concepts.

Cognition Load

It means the amount of brain power it takes to process certain things. When we provide too many options or unintuitive information, it costs users too much time to figure it out.

Do you know that every person needs to make 35,000 decisions per day, among which 226 decisions are related to diet. Therefore any excessive cognition load may cause a loss of users. Designers should always keep options within 6. Information should be as simple, intuitive as possible, use elements which users are familiar with.

Cognition Bias

The human brain is complicated. According to Wikipedia, humans have 175 cognitive biases, meaning 175 ways to interpret information. Each bias exists for a reason, save time and brain energy. Every person interprets information more or less differently, but that doesn't mean we misinterpret the original meaning.

For instance, Status Quo Bias is a status of people in favor of their current status, using their current status as a benchmark. People tend not to make a decision, they don't want to be responsible for time and risk caused by choosing, therefore people's favorite choice is always the default choice.

Below is a graph from designer Buster Benson and John Manoogian. They consolidated and visualized the 175 cognition bias described on Wikipedia.

Cognitive Bias
Cognitive Bias

Persuasive Design is established based on this kind of pshycological phenomenon.

When I first arrived in the US, I went to McDonald's and asked for chicken wings. The front counter told me that they didn't have chicken wings. I didn't give up, checked three more McDonald's, then came to the conclusion that in America, McDonald's doesn't sell chicken wings. This doesn't match my cognition, as I always enjoyed chicken wings at McDonald's in China. This cognition conflict created pressure in my brain, to find the consistency to my cognition, that's why I checked three more McDonald's.

When our brain has pressure, cognition conflicts occur. Our brain generates two conflicting patterns. When people encounter things that are in conflict with their impression, attitude, belief and behavior, cognition conflicts occur. That causes discomfort to users. To keep consistency with their existing cognition, users have to alter their own behaviors.

Designers usually use that to influence users behaviors and forming new habits.

The Lean Startup
The Lean Startup

The Importance of Cognition to Lean Startup

"The Lean Startup" book was once a must-read to entrepreneurs. The following views on cognition and entrepreneurship are quoted from that book.

“Yet if the fundamental goal of entrepreneurship is to engage in organization building under conditions of extreme uncertainty, its most vital function is learning. We must learn the truth about which elements of our strategy are working to realize our vision and which are just crazy. We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want. We must discover whether we are on a path that will lead to growing a sustainable business. ”

“I've come to believe that learning is the essential unit of progress for startups. The e ort that is not absolutely necessary for learning what customers want can be eliminated. I call this validated learning because it is always demonstrated by positive improvements in the startup's core metrics. As we've seen, it's easy to kid yourself about what you think customers want. It's also easy to learn things that are completely irrelevant. Thus, validated learning is backed up by empirical data collected from real customers.”

That means we must verify whether a new idea matches users cognition. You could go to cafe and run some quick, simple usability test. Demonstrate your design to potential users, ask them whether they can describe the purpose and function of that design instantly. Ask them whether they know how to use it, whether they are willing to use it. You always get surprising feedback. If we design something that doesn't match users' expectations or value, then it will damage our credibility.

Cognition & Dribbble

Every day designers use Dribbble to get inspirations, so do I. But there are lots of designs who are not actually in line with users cognition. Here is a sample design that actually creates cognition load.

Sample Dribbble design
Sample Dribbble design

Below is my analysis of this page design:

Clean visual layout, however it seems that there is too much focus on simplicity, functionality is overlooked, thereby increasing a users' cognition load.

The reasons are:

  • The purpose of this page is to find travel partners, however can you tell it at a glance?
  • The icons above the first profile row are confusing. Don't know what they are there for.
  • Couldn't tell that the top right icon is for settings.
  • The purpose of the green and yellow dots on the profile avatars is unclear.
  • I still don't know who to choose as my travel partner.

Therefore, don't follow Dribbble's design blindly. Usability test is the sole criteria of truth.

Here are a few simple steps to reduce cognition load, reduce users' thinking time:

  • Don't randomly invent new layout or graphics.
  • Limit options.
  • Categorize information.
  • Eliminate unnecessary features.
  • Add default options.
  • Display tips to help users make decisions.

Fay also shared with us how to conduct a simple, quick usability test for your site, app, products or services to ensure customer/user satisfaction.

About The Author

Fay Qi
Fay Qi

Fay Qi, graduated from Tsinghua University and Illinois Institute Of Technology. Working as Senior Mobile UI Designer at Booking.com.

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