There's quite a bit of science behind how web visitors get to a page on your site.
But if, once the visitors get to your pages, you make them think too much, all that science isn't going to save you.
You need to carefully control how much users need to think to get what they need from your website. In online marketing, that means thinking about the memory load, and the cognitive load.
Short-Term Memory and Working Memory
The long-term memory we have access to is an impressive evolutionary feat. Once a piece of information gets stored there, we can recall that piece of information pretty much at will. We can do this even if there's a lot to recall, and even if we encountered something years back.
By contrast, the short-term memory is a dumping ground of information you need access to at the moment. Consider its limitations:
Now, think about how working memory is the task-oriented version of that. It's the buffer where the brain deposits only what's relevant for what you're trying to do right now.
For people who manage websites, there are a lot of mistakes you can make to tax the working memory of users without meaning to.
Even things that look harmless can tax the short-term memory:
Avoiding these pitfalls require actively thinking about what the user's mental model.
Cognitive load deals with how much information your brain needs to process to properly interpret something. This is what gets taxed when a user visits your site, and they have no clue which of your page elements can be interacted with.
Just like with memory load, it doesn't take a lot to unwittingly strain the user's cognitive load:
Your interaction design needs to be top-notch to minimize cognitive load.
Managing Cognitive and Memory Load
If you carefully manage how little visitors need to think to get what they need from your site, more of your users will find what they need, and you'll have a better shot at converting visitors to customers.
1. Avoid making the user memorize anything
Since working memory is very limited, you'll want to keep the users from memorizing anything, if at all possible.
2. Display selections that users have already made
Visitors will take actions they're going to forget. It's up to you to add elements that remind them of the steps they've already taken:
Amazon displays filter options the user has checked, so they don't need to memorize the choices they've made.
3. Make the web pages load quickly
That short term memory limitation of 15 to 30 seconds becomes an issue when your pages take a while to load. Make sure the pages load before the user forgets what they're trying to do.
4. Try to harness existing user mental models
If things are predictable for the users, they don't need to think as much. You should try and make this true for most of their visit.
5. Group and limit options
Given that short-term memory has pretty extreme limitations, try to keep the number of choices you display down.
6. Provide user feedback mechanisms
You can tax the user's cognitive load by sending them on a hunt about what changed on your page. Whenever you can avoid doing that, you should ...
Asos.com draws attention to the field the user missed by giving it visual emphasis.
Putting It All Together
Short-term memory is ridiculously limited. You need to keep users from depleting that extremely limited resource as they go about their tasks. That's no small feat.
If you ...
... you're more likely to make it effortless for users to convert.