Tuesday morning. 8:55am.
You’re at your desk.
To your left, a stack of papers.
Behind you, three colleagues in conversation. A pre-meeting meeting.
Somewhere, a phone rings, going unanswered.
You turn your computer on. While it boots up, you take a quick look at your phone.
"Check out these 12 boards like yours!"
"Luke just posted for the first time in a while."
"Watch a badger bury an entire cow (never before seen)."
Whatsapp pings: "Can you pick up the kids this afternoon?"
Your computer boots up—finally. Your calendar flashes: Weekly Engagement Reporting is starting in 10 minutes.
You head to your inbox, the first of 50 visits today. 78 unread.
You click on the first email ...
... and this is what you see:
Image: Gustavo Pelogia
Did you read that?
Did you want to read that?
Are you likely to read it, ever?
That’s what we thought.
You don’t want to read it, and you won’t because of a little thing called cognitive load.
What is Cognitive Load?
Cognitive load is “the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory”.
Simply put, cognitive load is the science-y term for the amount of brain power we require to understand new information.
The human brain only has so much space to process different ideas at once. Ask it to do too much, and the mind will slow down, make more mistakes, or even give up entirely.
Studies on cognition date back centuries, but the term Cognitive Load first emerged in the 1980s with Australian psychologist John Sweller, who developed the Cognitive Load Theory.
Sweller applied his theory primarily to instructional design – or the design of teaching. He focused his research on how people learn, aiming to identify the best teaching methods that could help learners remember information.
He was trying to solve the same problem we’re all trying to solve: In a distracted and information overloaded world, how can we get people to pay attention to and retain important information?
Why Cognitive Load is a Disaster for Internal Communications
Everything you encounter in daily life adds to your cognitive load—including reading internal emails. Add all of your apps, notifications, and devices, it’s actually quite easy to become cognitively overloaded.
When you hit your capacity for cognitive load, you will simply stop taking in any new information.
This is a big problem for employee communications—especially communications with lots of information, like employee newsletters. Employee newsletters typically contain a lot of details that need to be communicated.
Here’s the thing: every little detail you add to your email increases the cognitive load of the reader.
Whether it’s a quick link here, another CTA there, or that perfectly relatable meme, each addition is just one more piece of information that the reader has to process.
An employee newsletter with too much going on causes overload. And overload means your reader probably won’t read or engage with your email at all.
If it’s too hard to read, employees simply won’t read it.
But perhaps the worst effect of cognitively overloading your reader is the negative impact it can have on how they feel about your newsletter. When your newsletter feels like hard work, employees will be less likely to engage with it.
Unfortunately, if employees aren't reading or engaging with your newsletter or communications, you’ll have stakeholders worried that they’re messages aren’t being communicated and then they’ll be hammering you to send more email.
And nobody wants that.
How to Reduce Cognitive Load in Your Employee Newsletters
Turns out, the same principles used to enhance learning experiences can be used to create better user experiences with your employee newsletter.
Just like most learning experiences, the goal of all of your communications is to get your audience to retain as much information as possible or complete a specific task.
But where do you start?
Practical Employee Newsletter Design Tips to Reduce Cognitive Load:
1. Make your content readable
Readable content is memorable content.
To ensure your content is readable, write as clearly and simply as possible. Best practice is to shoot for a reading level well below that of your target audience. If you’re not sure, try for about an 8th grade reading level.
But readability isn’t just about whether your audience can read your content. It’s about if they want to read your content.
Think of it this way: When you read an email or article stuffed full of wordy jargon, how quickly do you lose interest?
Newsletter content thrives when it speaks to employees in a natural, human voice. Human-sounding content allows for readers to connect in a way that they just can’t with robotic or overly corporate sounding content.
Fill your content with personality and employees won’t just read your newsletter because it’s well-written. They’ll read it because they enjoy it.
2. Reduce decision fatigue
Generally, we enjoy having choices in life. Choice feels empowering, giving us a sense of control.
But too much choice can be a bad thing. The more choices on offer, the longer we take to make decisions and the more uncertain we feel about those decisions.
Or decision fatigue sets in, and we can’t make a decision at all.
Every time an employee opens your email, you’re presenting them with a series of choices.There’s links to click, surveys to fill out, different sections to read. These don’t sound like big decisions but they have weight. They take time. They add to the cognitive load.
For every action you need employees to take, including clicking links or reading additional information, ask yourself – does this really need to be here?
Everything you remove gives your reader more breathing space to focus on the choices that really matter.
3. Remove visual clutter
According to a recent survey, 9/10 communicators would more.
But, how you use them matters.
Too many bright colors, images and font types will crowd the page and cause overstimulation. No matter how great the ideas you’re trying to convey might be, they’ll be lost in an attack on the senses.
Visual clutter is noise — it’s like trying to read while several people are talking to you at once.
But we’re not saying visuals are bad; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. A mix of visual and text content creates balance, which helps when your email is text-heavy.
It’s a balancing act. And you won’t always nail it the first time, which is why it’s a great idea to run a 5 Second Test.
Reduce your newsletter to balanced, non-competing elements, and you’ll create clarity that draws readers to the content that matters most.
Remember: Less is more.
And when in doubt: white space, white space, white space.
4. Design for skimmers
People don’t read.
At least, people don’t read online.
Instead, we scan headlines and articles, looking for what stands out.
Usability nerds at the Nielsen Norman Group have done some comprehensive studies on how people scan, identifying the most common scan path as the ‘F-pattern’.
The F-pattern works like this:
- Users start at the top left side of the page, reading content horizontally to the right (top bar of the F)
- They later move down slightly, taking in what’s on the page, then horizontally again (lower bar of the F)
- Last, users scan the left side of the page vertically (spine of the F)
While it’s seemingly effective, this type of F-pattern scanning means readers skip over big blocks of text.
For a communicator, that’s a big problem.
Those words everyone is skimming over are likely just as essential to your message as the rest, but because of the way we scan, they will get missed.
So how do we avoid this and make sure all of our information gets read?
First, it helps to note that we tend to scan and skip over things when there is no clear design or formatting. When faced with a wall of text with no signposts, our brain feels the strain and switches to default mode: scanning.
5. Be predictable
When we know what is coming, when we’re familiar with a design or certain content, our brain has to use less processing power to take it all in because we’ve already processed it so many times before.
When something is familiar to us, we barely notice it and are naturally less distracted by it.
By being consistent and reusing similar elements or templates in your design, you can decrease the cognitive load for your readers since readers don’t need to spend any mental energy learning something new.
We’re also creatures of habit.
We enjoy when things happen when we expect them to. As much as we claim to lament it, our brains love routine.
What’s more, when our expectations match what we find, it put us in a positive frame of mind. And a good mood does wonders for our humming brain. We avoid overthinking or over-analyzing details, allowing us to relax, and we’re more likely to persevere and absorb more information.
When you send out a well-designed newsletter, sent at the same time each week or month you’ll create a familiar positive emotional experience that will carry forward each time.
Lightening the Load for Employees
There’s a favourite saying among the UX design community – “the best design is the one you don’t even notice”.
But as you’ve discovered here, a lot of work goes into making something unnoticeable.
You have a lot to consider as you create your employee newsletter. But both you and your readers will benefit.
They’ll find your newsletter easier and more enjoyable to read, and you’ll reap the rewards of higher engagement and better communication across your organization.
- Cognitive load refers to the mental effort required to learn new information. When too much new information overwhelms the brain it causes cognitive overload.
- Cognitive overload is usually caused by a lack of clarity, too many choices, or if something requires too much thought.
- Since they typically convey lots of information, employee newsletters are particularly susceptible to cognitive overload.
- Your newsletter design can significantly affect cognitive load, hindering employees' ability to remember information, take action, and engage.
- Keep things simple with readable copy, minimal visual clutter, and limiting the number of choices.
- Template your design and send at a regular cadence to reduce your employees' cognitive load.