You know that feeling when you look at a design and your head starts to hurt?

If you need a refresher, take a look at this website -- it’s sure to cause a bit of confusion. 

What is Cognitive Load?

Cognitive load is “the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory”.

In the 1980’s, John Sweller came up with the cognitive load theory and argues that the way something is taught can impact the cognitive load in learners. Sweller expanded on this in three ways: the inherent difficulty of the concept, the complexity of how the concept is presented, and the construction of patterns and associations.


bad visual hierarchy- design2 Too many fonts, too many colors. Is this a zoo or a go kart track?



How Cognitive Load Is Negatively Affecting Internal Email

Cognitive load and ‘busyness’ is an important consideration in any design you may be creating, from a poster to an internal email. Both conversion optimizers and product designers work to minimize their design for fear or frustrating their audience or even worse, losing them entirely.

Why This Matters...

With employees already frustrated and inundated by email, it’s even more important to take this factor into consideration when designing your next internal email.

Steps to Reduce Cognitive Load

High cognitive load isn’t helping your internals get opened or your messages understood. But there are several ways to reduce cognitive load to send more impactful internal emails.
Bananatag-internal email newsletter- cognitive load design

Increase Clarity

The clarity of your email is important because it dictates how employees understand and act on your message. Here are ways you can increase clarity:

  • Make your action obvious
  • Make your value proposition clear so employees know what's in it for them
  • Conduct a 5-second test when reviewing your internal emails
  • Remove clutter and organize information

Create Predictability

While pattern disruption can be useful, you need to ensure that recipients of your emails generally know what to expect before they open them. This means making your value proposition clear: what are employees getting out of this message? If you have a few common types of internal emails, use unique templates for each type and keep information structured the same.

Maintain Visual Hierarchy

When we look at a design, it could be anything -- a website or a poster on a street corner -- we visually try to categorize and organize the information in our heads. We rely on cultural norms (left to right, top to bottom) and universal instincts (size, bold, contrast, color) when we decide the order in which we digest content.

You can reduce the effort involved in this process by creating a discernible flow in your design. Simple and common techniques include sizing your headings in order of importance, to more complex techniques such as optimizing line-height and white space to group elements together.

If you find your eyes darting around without being able to find this pattern or flow, you have a problem. It tells you your design isn’t working the way it should. But noticing this is a step in the right direction (with the help of the 5-second test), since it only takes a little bit of optimization until your design is ready to send.

Make Email Skimmable and Scannable

When was the last time you read every single word in an article? Taking in every single word just isn’t how we read. We skim headlines and articles, looking for copy that stands out amidst the blocks of text. We ask ourselves: what do we really need to know here? What content is worth our time?

An important aspect of making sure your content is skimmable, is the F pattern.

The F pattern is a dominant reading pattern and tells us about how quickly users read content on websites, based on eye tracking data. The resulting heatmap images of the data also looks a bit like the letter F.

f-pattern for internal emails- bananatag Image via, "Data Visualization: Common Visual Patterns"



How the F Pattern Works

  • Users start at the top left side of the page, reading content horizontally to the right
  • They later move down slightly, taking in what’s on the page, then horizontally again, creating the second horizontal line of the F.
  • Lastly is the vertical movement where users scan the content on the left side of the page

If your headlines relate to one another, make sure they can convey the story without getting into the body copy. The shorter the paragraphs in your body copy, the better. Stick to three to four sentences if possible and place your most important information in the first two paragraphs. This ensures that readers can quickly skim through your emails, while getting all the information they really need.

Being aware of the F pattern and the negative affects of cognitive load will help you create more skimmable, snackable messages. The concept may initially sound intimidating and like the title of a college psych course, but it makes a lot of sense.

By taking these few simple steps, internal emails can combat cognitive load and communicators can deliver key messages that fight off cognitive load lag.

What do you think about the concept of cognitive load and how does it influence your entire internal comms strategy? Let us know what you think below!