Cut cognitive load to improve customer experience

One of the more recent books I’ve read this year is the excellent ‘Scaling up Excellence’ with the very apt subtitle of ‘Getting to more without settling for less.’

As a very brief overview, the book details the work and research of Professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao of Stanford University in trying to understand the basic principles that allow organisations to scale successfully. Or, as in some of the real world case studies they document, how not to scale successfully with some painful and expensive lessons learnt along the way.

There’s a lot in the book that’s relevant to the world of customer experience and some useful lessons and principles that can and should be applied by many businesses and organisations, not only to scale but to improve customer experience.

Brain slide

One such scaling principle is ‘cut cognitive load’. The phrase sounds complex, but the principle as demonstrated repeatedly through research, is simply based on the ability of conscious memory to deal with mental load or work under increasingly complex environments.

Take memorising a series of random numbers. The ‘magic’ number for most people’s memory is 7 based on previous memory research. Try and memorise 10 or 12 digits and you’ll feel cognitive load at work!

It’s the same with multi tasking, as much as we think we’re good at it, research has again proven that the more tasks we take on, the worse we perform. In essence, multi tasking undermines everyone’s competence.

The underlying mantra then is to recognise when cognitive overload occurs in both employees and customers when business or organisational complexity increases. Alternatively overload occurs when product choices or options increase or when the customer decision making process becomes overly complicated or cumbersome.


It’s at this point of increased load for employees, that efficiency start to decline, mistakes are made and attention and focus shifts elsewhere. In the customer’s world, increased cognitive load makes purchasing and buying decisions harder, more frustrating and can and will lead customers to abandon purchases altogether and defect to competitors.

Websites are a great example of this with abandonment stats on purchases online as high as three quarters (75%) in 2013, alarmingly up from the 2012 figures.

Biting computer

However by both understanding and applying the principles of scaling overall, but especially cutting cognitive load customer experience can be significantly improved to the benefit of both customers, the organisation and the bottom line.

Other key lessons to reduce cognitive load within a business include using smaller work teams (less than double digits in size), applying the ‘less is best’ approach, and understanding that process and hierarchy are good (and essential) but only to a point, before the bureaucracy becomes self sustaining.

The appeal of understanding cognitive load on customers within the customer experience is a valuable one and adds another approach for businesses looking to take their customer experience to the next level. However, there’s no point using it the most obvious and painful sources of customer irritation are removed or reduced first. Unless of course, it’s cognitive load that the issue!

Pulling hair

Next time you’re at work or you’re being a customer, in a complex environment or processing a complex task, see if you experience cognitive load and reflect on what if any impact it has on your behaviour and how it makes you feel. Now you can’t beat a good experiment can you?

If you want to read more on the topic, try Scaling up Excellence itself, or this article on cognitive load theory and how it relates to learning.



Slides, friction and customer experience

I remember a couple of instances when I was young, when my Mum polished the slide in our local park. She actually took a duster and a can of polish in her bag along to the park when we played. Slide

The slide itself was really high to start with, probably because in part I was quite small at the time being about 6 or 7 years of age. But it certainly seemed high enough at the time. An all metal thing it was with wrought iron steps and a shiny and literally ‘polished’ slide surface. Just standing on the top step was enough to give you butterflies, let alone the sliding experience that was to follow especially after my Mum had been busy with the Mr Sheen!

It was a great experience. Fast, thrilling and without friction to slow me or my friends down and one we could repeat again and again until tea time.

It’s the same with customer experience. The more ‘friction’ in a business process, and the more resistance that a customer encounters, then the less satisfying the customer experience will be overall. The greater the number of steps the customer has to go through or the more forms they have to fill out or boxes to fill in on a web page, then the higher the perceived level of effort will be from the customer’s perspective, irrespective of what the actual level of effort is in reality. MrSheen

This raises the probability that the customer experience will be less than desirable, if indeed they actually complete the process in the first place. If they do actually get through the process, will they think that is was too difficult and so be unlikely to return and buy again?

Recent figures suggest online shopping cart abandonments now reach into the billions of pounds each year and is rising steadily, in part due to the fact that checkout processes create way too much friction for customers. That’s a significant loss to business given the amount of time, effort and money invested in getting customers to a website in the first place. Even instore, abandoned purchase rates are high because customers feel they have to queue for too long before being able to pay.

So in order to reduce friction and improve the customer experience, there’s a number of options available;

1. Gather feedback around customer effort directly from customers. Get an understanding of how much effort customers have to go to in order to buy your products or use your services and at each steps of their journey.

2. Where customers spend a large amount of effort, look at ways to simplify the process by reducing the number of steps customers have to go to or by speeding up the overall time the process takes to complete. Always try and see and experience how processes work from the customer’s perspective.

3. Map the customer journey. Ensure that business processes are aligned to the customer journey and that it’s as effortless and frictionless as is realistically and commercial viable for you.

Simple? It should be. Reduce friction, improve the customer experience. Happy sliding!


How psychology can improve your customer experience

Maybe not an obvious area to look to when trying to improve customer experience, but the disciplines of both psychology and behavioural economics can help us understand how to deliver a better customer experience through understanding both perception and behaviour.

Psychology imageOne such example from the field of psychology is the ‘peak end rule’ which helps us understand exactly how our perception of experience is formed, which we can then use to our advantage when designing and shaping great customer experiences.

The research behind this was initially conducted by Daniel Kanheman, the nobel prize winning psychologist. The experiment has often been replicated but the initial one involved patients undergoing a colonoscopy. Whilst not wading into the gory details, the experiment showed that whilst the two groups of patients had experienced different levels of pain throughout the process, they recalled experiencing the exact same levels of pain, despite the fact that their actual experience varied.

Kahneman concluded that the patients, and indeed all people, seem to perceive not the sum of an experience over time, but the average of how it was at its peak (e.g. pleasant or unpleasant) and how it ended. The graphic below illustrates the principle;


The peak and the end of an experience dominate how the experience itself is remembered even trumping our rational perspective. We’re not saying positive first impression aren’t important as they absolutely are. However, in addition to this, you now need to focus on peak and end with your customers.

Interestingly, there is also another effect at play here. One called the duration neglect effect. In essence this means that the duration of the experience over time has little or no influence on the peak end rule. Therefore it’s of little use to try and extend a positive experience further over time to make it last longer with the hope of creating more imppact. The useful aspect is to identify opportunities to create peak experiences during customer interactions. The more extreme the peak, the more memorable the experience. Positive surprises or moments to significantly exceed customer expectation work well. Better still if you can combine peak and end at the same time, you’re on the way to having delivered a truly unforgettable customer experience.

However this could simply be to ensure you send customers away happy in all instances, and to ensure their end experience is as positive and as high as possible.

As an example of how not to do this, I’ll share an actual experience that happened to me. Many years ago I was invited to a wedding and stayed in the hotel where the reception was.

The weekend and the wedding reception was fine (as far as I can remember) and we went to check out after breakfast on Sunday morning by the 10am deadline as all the other wedding guests had to, which was the problem.

By the time we got into the reception area, the queue to check out stretched from the front desk to the front door! To compound the fact, there was only one member of staff checking guests out. It seemed to take a life time to get to the front of the queue and while we were checking out I asked the girl why there was only one member of staff working. She replied that no one else was in for another hour and it was only her!


That’s my overriding memory of that weekend and that hotel. The massive queue to get out. Not the leisure facilities or the wedding reception which was the point of being there in the first place but the queue to leave. I also remember the frustration and my thought about how little the hotel must have cared about the guest experience to put people through an ordeal like that.

That apparent lack of foresight and planning of the staff rota (I’m assuming) combined with the fact that the hotel clearly knew that there was a wedding that weekend and that their occupancy levels were very high to full, created a significantly negative end experience. I’d also suggest that it wasn’t just me that felt like that too.

That whole experience could have been so significantly different, if they’d just planned it better. It’s a simple but great illustration about how just one thing wrong in a customer experience can destroy all the good and positive work done prior to that point.

I’m sure that if you’d have asked the hotel how much they cared about their guests and the guest experience, I’m sure they would give you the right answer, but their working practices and the impact on the customer experience conveyed a different message. That lack of planning said to me that they didn’t care enough to rota more staff on, on a Sunday morning when checkout ‘traffic’ was at its busiest.

This also outlines another important point which is to be congruent with customer experience between what you say and what you do. If you say the customer is important, then you have to act in a way that shows that the customer is important and you can only do that from the customer’s perspective.

How could you use the understanding of the peak end rule to improve your customer experience delivery?