The Data Briefing: How Neuroscience and Communication Theory Inform Good User Experience Design

Nov 25, 2015

Standing on the corner, waiting in the rain, I swear I’ll never, ever, use that app again. Why? Because the bad user experience (UX) design was preventing me from determining when the Metrobus would arrive.

UX is everything from the visual design to the navigation structure of the website or mobile app. This month, DigitalGov is focusing on UX design. Good UX design is based on understanding how people perceive and process information on everything from websites to mobile apps. In this article, I will describe two fundamental neuroscience concepts and one communication theory that explain how to create good UX design.

Cognitive Barriers

The first neuroscience concept is cognitive barriers. Cognitive barriers can best be illustrated by the difficulties I had with a mobile app designed to display information about the Metro system. First, the number of steps to find information seemed excessive. Second, the perceived length of the steps was also excessive in that I had to do a lot of scrolling just to find the right address. Finally, the difficulty of the instructions was also bad UX in that I had to input a number from the bus stop sign and then verify the number with the address (again!). Try doing that when you are balancing an umbrella in one hand and working with frozen fingers in the hand holding the smartphone. All these barriers required more cognitive resources than I had available on a cold, rainy November morning.

Colourful abstract brain illustration

Cognitive Load

The second neuroscience concept is understanding how the mobile app, website or data visualization affects your user’s cognitive resources. Cognitive load describes how much of the user’s working memory is required for a task or decision. You may have heard of the famous “7 plus or minus 2” theory, which explains people can only keep seven concepts at a time in their working memory.

This applies to UX when designing navigation for a website or mobile app. Presenting a long menu list on a mobile app can overtax a user’s cognitive load because the user needs mental resources to parse each menu item and then choose the appropriate item. Some UX designers try to lighten the cognitive load by presenting icons, but these can also be mentally taxing as users try to determine if the icon looks more like a bird or an ice-cream cone. Then, the user is left to wonder what kind of choice the bird icon represents.

Elaboration Likelihood Model

Understanding the two neuroscience concepts of cognitive barriers and cognitive load helps in understanding the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). ELM is a communication theory that explains how people are persuaded by the way they process information. People can take the central route in processing information whereby they are highly-interested in the message and the strengths of the arguments in the message. In contrast, people that take the peripheral route are more influenced by other factors surrounding the message. They could be influenced by the overall credibility of the source, how attractively the message is displayed, or what they will gain from receiving the message.

How Do These Concepts Support a Good UX?

  1. ELM recognizes the importance of a good message. What is the purpose of the website or mobile app and what should the user get out of using the website or mobile app?
  2. How do the design elements reinforce the message and make it easier for people to process the message and the arguments supporting the message?
  3. Home screen of the Ask Karen iPhone app.
    Does the design help guide the decision-making process by reducing cognitive barriers and cognitive load?
  4. Is there a good balance between message and design so that the user does not veer off the central route into a peripheral route?

Let’s examine a federal government mobile app that has good UX design. Because it is the holiday season and that means lots of food, I find Ask Karen from the USDA to be especially helpful.

From the iTunes description: “Ask Karen provides 24/7 assistance and tips on preventing foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products.” The opening screen has a simple interface that just asks if you prefer the English or Spanish version (extra points for being bilingual). The menu systems are easy to navigate, and the site helps keep me on the central route of ELM through the good use of design elements such as easy-to-read fonts, intuitive icons and minimal scrolling.

Good UX design is essential to unlocking the value of federal government data. Understanding the neuroscience and communication theory behind how people process information will help the developers, agency communicators and data scientists best present and deliver vitally-needed data products and services to the American public.

Support and food allergies screens of the USDA Ask Karen iPhone app.
_Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends._ Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.