Diagram of how cognitive schema are activated

Cognitive Schema


A cognitive schema is a mental model that allows people to organize information, beliefs and expectations about a particular subject. In the digital environment this enables people to make short-cuts based upon past experience.

This allows people to focus their attention on areas where they expect to discover the information they are searching for and as a result they often ignore locations that are associated with ads (e.g. on the right of a web page). This is one reason for banner blindness as people have become savvy about the nature and location of advertising assets on sites.

Diagram of how cognitive schema are activated

It is also the main reason why you should be very careful about going against web conventions. Sure, sometimes you may want to be a bit novel and create an experience that makes people think. But the location of some assets, such as brand logos and navigation are so ingrained in our cognitive schema that to not following the convention is simply asking for trouble.

Image of A/B test control and variant to test switching secondary navigation from right to left side of page
Source: partypoker.com

In the above example for instance we tested switching the secondary navigation from the right-side of the page to the left-side. On 99.9% of websites navigation is either at the top of the page or on the left. Vertical navigation is on the left because in the West we read from left to right, and so it makes a lot of sense.

For this reason I was fairly confident that when I suggested testing the switch that it would be a success. Sure enough the variant delivered a significant uplift in clicks on the secondary navigation (+17%) and a similar uplift in clicks on the  primary CTA (Play poker). So the lesson here is that if your site is breaking any strong web conventions it is worth testing to see if it is costing you money.



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