21 July 2022

Cognitive load in a poster session

How hard do you have to think to “get” something? The technical term for that difficulty is cognitive load. It’s a useful concept for any sort of communication. Sinbinga and Waldron have a nice article on the concept of cognitive load as it applies to data visualization. Click to enlarge their one page summary below.

Cogintive load guide. AMount of cognitive load depends on the data, the audience, and the visualization.

I encourage reading the whole article before continuing on with my commentary.

The amount of cognitive load imposed by the data and the visualization used will vary from project to project, so I just want to zoom in and think about how the audience at a typical conference affects the cognitive load.


“How will your audience end up looking at your work?” At some level, you’re both attending the same conference, which pushes toward intentional seeking out of work, implying low cognitive load.

But the bigger the conference, the less likely it is that your audience has come for your work, your topic, or even your field. Many people will come across your poster just browsing.


 “How long do you have the audience’s attention?” Most audience members are looking to get in and out in about five minutes. So not quite as short as someone scrolling through a social media feed, but that short timeline probably pushes the cognitive load towards “heavy.”


“How much does the audience know about your data?” Like “Connection,” this can vary widely, particularly at bigger conferences. Generally, you can assume someone at the same conference has a working knowledge of the topic, but most academic posters tend to be on particular sub-fields that only a few might know about in depth.


“How much experience does your audience have getting information from this format?” Most people attending a conference are likely to have seen something like it that mixes text and visuals. But some may not be familiar with how to interact with a poster presenter to get the most out of the conversation.

There can be differences in personality and culture that can also reduce an audience member’s confidence.

Three of these four factors – connection, knowledge, and confidence – all look like they should trend towards “light” cognitive load. But almost every conference has people who are going to an academic conference for the first time

Their connection to the discipline may be new. Their knowledge may not be extremely broad or deep yet. They may be facing imposter syndrome. All of these can push the cognitive load towards “heavy” for those people. I suggest trying to develop your poster with those attendees in mind as much as you can.

External links

Cognitive Load as a Guide: 12 Spectrums to Improve Your Data Visualizations

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