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.

 


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