4 UX Tips to Reduce Users’ Cognitive Overload and Burnout

Record numbers of workers are experiencing stress in their jobs and personal lives. More than one-quarter of Americans say they’re so stressed by global and domestic crises that they are unable to function most days, according to a nationally representative 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association.

This ongoing threat to mental health means designers should be wary of saddling users with unnecessary cognitive loads—a UX issue that can be especially detrimental to knowledge workers who spend most of their time using digital tools. But if a single error message can send stress hormones soaring, how can designers of enterprise products protect their users?

In 2021, I began working with Yerbo, a burnout assessment and self-help tool for tech workers. Through close collaboration with Yerbo’s psychologists, I learned how burnout works and how designers can ensure they don’t contribute to it.

Designing an App that Fights Burnout

Designing a burnout assessment tool posed several interesting challenges. The Yerbo platform aims to keep workers in high-pressure jobs healthy. It’s free to individuals, but companies can subscribe to an enterprise plan that collects team burnout scores so that managers can anticipate morale and workload issues. (To protect user privacy and ensure authentic answers, Yerbo anonymizes and aggregates these scores before sharing them with managers.)

Users are more likely to benefit from their assignments if they complete them in a calm, reflective state, so we created a minimal UI that is clean and aesthetically pleasing. The product team wanted to make content easy to find and promote focus for burned-out users, so we reduced the notifications we sent, created a dedicated, immersive page for each task, and ensured all language was easy to read.

A dashboard featuring colored meters that display levels of Work Engagement (3.7 out of 6) and Burnout (3.8 out of 6). The subcategories of Work Engagement include Mental Focus, Purpose, and Energy. The subcategories of Burnout Risk include Exhaustion, Cynicism, Depersonalization, and Self-inefficacy.
Yerbo’s quizzes calculate burnout risk scores based on the four dimensions of burnout: physical or emotional exhaustion, self-inefficacy, cynicism, and depersonalization. Users can view their results in an easy-to-understand dashboard. (Credit: Yerbo)

After their initial assessment, users at risk of burnout begin a program that consists of self-guided exercises tailored to specific symptoms. Exercises last from one to 15 minutes and are intended to be completed during the workday, when users are most vulnerable to burnout-inducing habits and stressors.

For example, one exercise to improve confidence prompts users to counter negative beliefs about themselves. Another, to help manage rumination, asks users to reflect on the benefits of working faster and making deadlines versus striving for perfection and working overtime.

Once users complete the first module, they receive weekly reminders to move on to the next one. If checkup surveys indicate their burnout is under control, users can still revisit the activities to maintain their results or alleviate emerging symptoms.

A fill-in-the-blank exercise to manage rumination. The five prompts are, “Write five things you can see around you,” Write four things you can touch around you,” “Pay attention to your surroundings and write three things you can hear,” “Keep going by writing two things you can smell,” and “Find one thing you can eat.”
Yerbo’s simple UI encourages users to focus on their assigned exercises, like this one, which teaches users how to ground themselves in the present moment to reduce worry and anxiety. (Credit: Yerbo)

Positive messages appear at the end of each module to motivate users to stick with the program, but the messages praise users’ effort, not their outcomes (“Keep up the good work!”, “You finished your journey!”). A message forcing positivity (like “You’re feeling better already!”) would diminish difficult experiences and encourage workers to ignore burnout symptoms, which makes them worse.

Of course, creating a healthy UX is easier when the application’s sole purpose is to enhance mental well-being. But the principles that Yerbo designers and psychologists established can serve a wide range of enterprise products.

4 UX Principles to Prevent User Burnout

Prevention is the best medicine for burnout. Fortunately, there are UX strategies that you can use throughout the design process to ensure that your product doesn’t overwhelm users. Not every principle will apply to every enterprise application, but incorporating as many as possible will contribute to healthier workdays for your users.

1. Reduce Product Complexity

A busy UI can make users feel like they’re falling behind. Offer fewer and higher-quality features, hide lesser-used functions to give core content more space, and aggregate notifications to avoid constantly interrupting users.

If a user’s first interaction with your product is easy, they’ll probably continue using it. For example, Slack users creating a new workspace only need to complete three steps, and each step appears one at a time. This immersive, focused experience ensures that users complete the setup and don’t get lost in a sea of form fields.

A screenshot of the first step of Slack’s workspace setup. The text above the form field reads, “What’s the name of your company or team? This will be the name of your Slack workspace. Choose something that your team will recognize.”
Slack’s workspace setup reveals one step at a time to avoid overwhelming users with form fields. (Credit: Slack)

2. Reward Small Steps

Impart a sense of progress without adding friction. Think one-time messages of encouragement (“Good job! You completed your first task.”) rather than an ecosystem of points and badges that can add more stress.

For example, the Asana project management platform randomly deploys celebration creatures when users complete a task. This feature rewards incremental progress that might otherwise go unnoticed and helps users feel more effective at their jobs.

Likewise, Meta’s business communication platform links effort to outcome and promotes a sense of progress by instantly customizing Workplaces as users enter information into form fields.

A screenshot of Meta’s custom workplace. The text above a form field reads, “Create Your Workplace,” and the form field reads, “Awesome Place.” A window to the right of the form field shows the new Workplace in progress, already named “Awesome Place.”
Meta instantly populates information from form fields and dropdown menus into its Workplace setup, offering users a sense of accomplishment. (Credit: Meta)

3. Earn Users’ Trust

Burned-out users are cynical users. There are many ways to build trust, depending on what type of application you’re developing. For example, HR applications should have UX data security features—such as multifactor authentication, automatic timeout, and trust badges—that let users know that the sensitive information collected from applicants and new employees is protected. The HR survey tool Officevibe, for example, creates trust by building its UX around the company’s value proposition of total privacy. Officevibe only shares anonymous written feedback with managers if there are five or more respondents, and it also allows managers and employees to engage in anonymous chats to discuss issues in more detail without fear of retaliation.

Likewise, LinkedIn protects users’ work relationships with multiple privacy settings, including one that lets users conceal their profile viewing history. Another setting pauses notifications that would otherwise broadcast a user’s profile edits to managers and colleagues.

A screenshot of LinkedIn’s Visibility settings. The introduction to this setting reads, “Sharing profile edits. Should we notify your network of key profile changes (such as new job, education, certificate, profile video) and work anniversaries?” A toggle button is set to “Off” next to the words “Share key profile updates.”
LinkedIn builds trust with users by helping them keep job searches secret from current employers. (Credit: LinkedIn)

4. Use Specific Language

Stress can cause us to disconnect from our bodies and feelings to cope. This action, called depersonalization, also disconnects us from other people’s feelings, making us harsher and putting our relationships or work culture at risk.

To help prevent depersonalization, give users frequent system status updates and use specific language when there’s a problem instead of frustrating classics like “Payment Error,” “Bad Request,” and “Something went wrong.” Google Docs’ “trying to connect” pop-up notification is a good model for specific status updates because it cues users to network issues as they occur. Likewise, Dropbox’s account creation page offers instant, actionable advice on resolving form field errors.

Dropbox’s account creation page. Fields include “First Name,” “Last Name,” “Email,” and “Password.” There is a red error message above a mistyped email address. It reads, “An email address must contain a single @.”
Dropbox manages user stress levels by identifying why their sign-up attempt failed and how to fix it. (Credit: Dropbox)

Adjust Your UX as Necessary

Users’ real-world experiences trump principles when reducing burnout risk through UX design.

The pressures contributing to burnout will vary by industry, so make sure to recruit research participants in the field you’re designing for and involve them in the UX design process. What stressors do they most often face? What is the quit rate for their industry? How do they feel about the UX of the enterprise tools they use daily?

For example, if I were designing an enterprise ticketing platform, my users would be a team of engineers. Because I’ve worked with and designed for engineers before, I could begin with a few assumptions about their needs and team structure.

  1. The ticketing platform must track and prioritize bugs.
  2. The user-engineers will use a squad structure with a team lead overseeing individual contributors (ICs).
  3. The ICs will take turns handling support requests.

From this work structure, I would infer that an influx of time-sensitive requests would be one of the primary sources of user stress and might lead to technical debt—the accrual of faulty or inadequate code over time that hinders future upgrades or fixes.

Next, I would validate or disprove my assumptions through UX research. If most of my assumptions proved true when I consulted the engineer research participants, here’s what my burnout-prevention approach for a ticketing platform might look like:

  1. Ensure that only the IC user owning the support role on a given day receives alerts.
  2. Reduce and prioritize notifications to help users know where to focus their efforts. This can be an automatic feature or something each user may adjust manually. For example, an IC might elect to receive notifications for only urgent tickets.
  3. Disable notifications outside the user’s work hours except for critical issues.

In this example, my goal as a designer is to create a work environment where users feel they are making progress on mission-critical tasks and have time to implement high-quality solutions. As I refine my UX design, I’ll keep testing features on engineers, collecting their feedback, and noting their attitudes toward the new ticketing platform.

Users will always tell you what they need—through direct critique or by displaying signs of stress or burnout. These signs will look different from person to person. For some, burnout may manifest as aggression, while others may become subdued and disengaged.

Remember that working conditions, health status, and social trends affect how users experience your designs. Conducting interviews and testing prototypes will ensure that your UX respects the broader pressures your users face.

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