Cognitive artifacts

Francesco Marcatto6 Apr 16

Cognitive artifacts

We use cars to move faster, ladders to take things placed beyond arm’s reach, and carts for bringing our purchases when shopping. Every day we use a vast amount of artificial devices that make us faster, stronger and let us do things that otherwise would be impossible or would require a great amount of time or fatigue. But we also use things like agendas, maps, and computers to help us in cognitive tasks (i.e., tasks which require processing of information, such as remembering a list of things to do or making complex calculation). These human-made devices that make us smarter and increase our cognitive performances are called cognitive artifacts (Norman, 1991).

Strictly speaking, usually cognitive artifacts do not actually increase individuals’ capabilities, rather, they change and simplify the nature of task to be performed by the person. For example, one of the simplest cognitive artifacts is the shopping list. We need to take notes because the capacity of our short-term memory is far from being infinite, on average an adult can hold 7±2 pieces of information in its short-term memory (that is, from 5 to 9 pieces, with a median score of 7; this is well-known in psychology literature as “the magical number seven plus minus two”, Miller, 1956). The shopping list do not increases our short-term memory, instead it changes the task, from remembering a great number of things to buy, to just remembering to consult the list. This way, we free ourselves from the burden of a tiring memory task, and at the same time, we decrease the likelihood of forgetting to buy something due to a failure in recall. Thus, from the point of view of the person, the shopping list is a device that simplify the task to be performed. From the point of view of an outside observer, however, the person and the shopping list become a system in which the cognition is distributed between the person and the device, a system with expanded and enhanced memory over the individual alone (Zhang & Norman, 1994).

With the availability of powerful, inexpensive and portable devices, such as laptops, smartphones, and smart-watches, we have now access to evolved versions of analogical cognitive artifacts, such as note taking apps, but also to completely new artifacts, such as virtual personal assistants and decision support systems. For example, decision support systems are information systems that help people and organizations in making smart decisions in complex situations, for example in complex domains in which people have no expertise or with a strong emotional component that could take over rationality. These new cognitive artifacts should let us be more efficient, productive and rational, but also more happy and less stressed.

To fully achieve this goal, they should also be easy and pleasant to use. For example, note-taking apps are more powerful than traditional notepads or sticky notes (copy/paste, search function, possibility to share the notes, etc.), but if the interface is clumsy or the loading times are excessive, it is likely that users will return to use the old-fashioned paper notepads. Thus, the big challenge of software cognitive artifacts is that they should be developed according the organization of human cognition, in order to be actually helpful in cognitive tasks, but they should also be developed considering usability and emotional factors that maximize users’ experience.

Cognitive artifacts in a social world

Social interactions are among the most complicated cognitive activities, involving different cortical regions and subcortical structures of our brain (Adolphs, 2009). It has also been hypothesized, that the extraordinary size and complexity of the human brain is due to the necessity of living in complex social environments ('the Social brain hypothesis'; Dunbar, 2009). Thus, cognition cannot be separated from the social environment in which people live and work. For example, many work activities are commonly done in teams, such as present and share information, solve problems, make decisions and conducting creative work such as brainstorming. What most people do not know, however, is that also teamwork can be improved, by using the right tools for supporting and guiding social activities.

At Mindiply, we aim to develop what we call socio-cognitive artifacts, in other words software and apps, based on the latest research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience and social cognition, that will enhance individuals’ cognitive performances, and guide teamwork to the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its members.


  • Adolphs, R. (2009). The Social Brain: Neural Basis of Social Knowledge. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 693–716.
  • Dunbar, R. I. (2009). The social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution. Annals of human biology, 36(5), 562-572.
  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), 81.
  • Norman, D. (1991). Cognitive artifacts. In: J.M. Carroll (Ed.), Designing interaction: Psychology at the human-computer interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Zhang, J., & Norman, D. A. (1994). Representations in distributed cognitive tasks. Cognitive science, 18(1), 87-122.

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