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Do you know how your designs can influence people’s memory and overall experience? There are a number of amazing facts we know about memory we can use to design captivating user experience. In this part of Psychology of design series you will learn about nine most important findings about human memory you should, as designer, know. Use this knowledge to design products that will help people avoid some of the pitfalls memory can have.
Psychology of design and our memory
Human memory is very complex and mysterious area. A lot of effort was made y scientist in order to finally understand how our memory work. So far, this feat is not complete. There are still many hidden mysteries and intriguing questions we need to explore and answer. Still, there are many interesting facts we already know about memory that we can use in our design work today.
No.1: Our short-term memory is limited
Imagine you are walking on the street when suddenly you get an amazing idea. Unfortunately, you don’t have pen and paper or your phone to write your idea. What can you do? Well, you can think about the idea and repeat it to yourself again and again. You hope this will help you remember your idea. Or you accelerate the pace of your walk to get back home faster and write down your idea. You probably know that in such a situation, your memory is not the best thing to rely on.
There are many theories about this type of memory psychologists call short-term or working memory. The truth is that capacity of our working memory is quite limited. Information stored there are also very prone to disruption. For example, try to remember some number while listening to another person. This is almost impossible feat. You have to decide what is the one thing you will put your focus on and ignore everything else. Otherwise, you will forget the number.
The reason is that our working, or short-term, memory is closely related to our focus and attention. Paying close attention to the information and present moment is necessary to create new connection in your brain and remember it. To increase the chances of remember information it is also important to avoid stressful situation. Research showed that when we feel stressed and our cortisol levels are going higher and higher, the probability of remembering new information will decrease significantly. In other words, trying to study just before the test when you are stressed is a very bad idea.
It is also interesting that there is a connection between working memory and the amount of sensory input you process at the moment. Experiments showed that people with great working memory are able to filter out sensory input better than others. There is a part of brain called prefrontal cortex that determines what we should pay attention to. The more inputs there is to process, the harder it is to determine what to focus on. This has an impact on our memory. When we learn how to ignore other sensory input, we will be more likely to remember the information.
First, don’t force people to remember information for a longer time. If your design requires people to input certain information they previously learned, let them input these information on the same page. Don’t force people to read some information on page one and then use that information on page five. It will not work, people will get frustrated and overall experience will suffer. Second, if you want people to do task that requires remember something, let them finish the task.
As we discussed, working memory is prone to disruption. Let’s say that you are working on app design and people have to do couple tasks. All these tasks require remembering and then using some specific information. It will be more comfortable for people if you let them finish one task before moving onto the next one. Otherwise, their memories can be impacted by this task switching and they will not be able to recall the information.
Third, if you want people to remember something, limit the amount of sensory input. For example, if you are designing educational website, create environment where people can easily focus on content they should learn. Remove all possible visual and auditory input that could be distracting.
No.2: We can remember only four chunks of new information
Have you ever heard that we can remember about seven pieces or chunks of information? This is something called The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Many people believe in this “rule”. According to more recent research and studies this may no longer be true. These studies suggest that we are able to hold only four chunks of information instead of seven under the right conditions. Right conditions mean that there is nothing interrupting information processing.
One strategy that can help us remember more information is chunking. This means that we take couple information we want to remember and split them into chunks. For example, the number 572569812336 will be easier to remember when you split it into four chunks – 572 569 812 336. Instead of working with nine numbers, you are working with only three chunks with three numbers in each. This is why phone numbers are usually split into chunks, to make it easier to remember.
This principle of four chunks applies also to our long-term memory and information recall. According to couple studies, people can recall information in groups or categories more easily when these categories contained up to three items. The ability to recall decreased significantly when number of items in each category or group was higher than three. For example, when group contained four, five or six items, the ability to recall information was about eighty percent.
First, if your design requires users to remember certain amount of information, try to find some way to keep the number of information under four. You can also make it easier for users to remember the information by splitting it into smaller chunks. Second, make sure that when you split information it chunks, these chunks will be limited to four pieces of information. Third, you might also suggest that users use notepad (paper or digital) or phone to write down the information so they will not forget it. Having this kind of help can also help relieve stress.
No.3: We remember the beginning and the end
Let’s explore the theory of four chunks furthermore. What will happen if you will need to remember amount of information that will exceed recommended number of information even if you split it into chunks? Let’s imagine that you will want to remember list containing thirty completely different items. Now, unless you will use some learning technique, it will be close to impossible to remember this list in short time. Let’s say that you try to memorize the list anyway.
The result will be that you will mostly remember couple items (three or four) on the beginning, in the middle and on the end. Try this couple times and you will see that this pattern will occur again and again. This is something called serial position effect.In a short, we tend to remember the first and last couple words. We also tend to forget anything that is in the middle. This serial position effect is built on another two effects.
The first one is primacy effect. It says that we have a tendency to recall earlier information. The second one is recency effect that says that we are more likely to recall the later information. The result is that information in the beginning are often stored in long-term memory (primacy effect) while information on the end are stored in the short-term. What is in the middle had been there for too long to be held in short-term memory and not long enough to be stored in long-term memory. Therefore, it is likely to be forgotten.
First, make sure to give the most important information to users either as first or last. This will increase the chance they will remember it. Second, avoid “burying” important information in the middle of the message. Information in this place are the weakest and most prone to be forgotten.
No.4: We use schemes to remember information
There are two ways how we can remember something for good. First, we can achieve that by repeating the information again and again. This is probably how you learned at school if you had to nail an exam the next day (it’s at least what I did). Every time you repeat something, specific neurons in your brain are activated. When two neurons are activated, new connection (axon) between them is created. All our memories are basically stored as patterns of these connections.
What’s more, with every repetition the connection between neurons becomes stronger thanks to myelination. This process leads to increase of the myelin sheet that covers the axon. The thicker this sheet is, the faster can neurons communicate with each other. In other words, repetition causes physical changes in the brain structure. You can think about it as a path in the grass. The more you use it, the more visible and stable it will become. The same applies to your memories.
The second option is to connect the information to something you already know. Every time you try to create association between your current knowledge and new information, it will be easier for you to remember and recall it later. You can think about it as building new floor on top of already existing one instead of starting on greenfield, and from scratch. Many people like to think about this way of memorizing information as creating mental schemes.
Every mental scheme is basically a block composed of smaller elements. For example, the laptop I’m using right now to write this article is mental scheme. This scheme (laptop) is composed of elements such as keyboard, touchpad, screen, battery, fan, motherboard, network card, CPU, GPU, HDD and also software. Another example of scheme is human body. It is composed of head, neck, torso, arms and legs. When you know these schemes, when you think about laptop or body, you will also immediately recall all information related to it.
So, when you want to learn new information about, say, body or laptop, you can connect that information to the schemes you already know. Thinking in this way, we can say that you can “upgrade” your schemes. As I mentioned, memorizing information through “upgrading” schemes is much easier and faster than memorizing through “brute force” – always starting from scratch. It is also important to mention that these schemes are capable of holding incredible amount of information. And, the more use them, the more “sticky” the information inside them will be.
The last thing to mention is that the better people will get in certain discipline, area or activity, the more organized the will become. No, I’m not talking about having clean table or library full of books sorted in alphabetical order. I’m still talking about mental schemes. The best way to illustrate this is to think about chess. Mental schemes are that one thing that distinguishes between grandmasters and the rest. During their practice, chess grandmasters built huge library of schemes composed of various positions on the chess board and movements of chess pieces.
Every time some grandmaster plays chess, he doesn’t have to think about thousands different moves. Instead, he will use one of his mental schemes and “look” for the best board positions and moves. As we discussed, mental schemes can hold incredible amount of information and this ability increases over time. In other words, chess grandmaster can use just one scheme to remember number of positions other, less skilled, players would need more schemes for.
First, if you want people to remember some information, you have to repeat it again and again couple times. Repetition and “training” is one of the best ways to build and strengthen new neural connections (create new memories). Second, doing user research will give you valuable insights into mental schemes and models people have. This will help you understand your target audience and design better products and services.
Third, make use of mental scheme and models people already have. It will be easier to understand and remember information for user if they will be able to connect these information with these mental schemes. Show your users how they can connect information with their mental schemes.
No.5: Information recognition is easier than recall
When you try to remember some information and then recall these memories it is called, well, memory recall. Then, there is also process called recognition. One example of this process is writing a test in which every question has several options. In that situation, it will be easier to “recognize” the right information from available options than if you would have to recall it from memory without any clues or hints. Process of recognition uses context which, in turn, makes it easier for us to recall specific memories.
Interesting finding about information recall is that it is directly influenced by our current mental schemes. For example, let’s say I will give you a list of ten items related to house and ask you to remember them. After a while, I will ask you to write down all the items on the list. It is possible that you will write even things that weren’t on my list. The reason is that you, consciously or subconsciously, recognized that all these items are somehow related to house. Then, this scheme helped you recall the items on my list and also some wrong items contained in your mental scheme, but not on my list.
First, use hints that will help people use process of recognition instead of recalling memories. Remember that our memory is often not the best thing to rely on. Also, it is prone to errors and distortion. Second, when designing an interface, make it less dependent on users’ ability to remember and recall information. It will be much easier and more comfortable for users to recognize information than to recall them.
No.6: Memory demands a lot of intellectual resources
According to the latest research we process around forty billions sensory inputs every second. Consciously, we can process, or know about, only around forty sensory inputs at the same time. Still, this doesn’t mean that you can break the principle of four chunks we previously discussed. There is a difference between sensing or perceiving something and memorizing it. When you walk in the park, your brain unconsciously process all available information.
As a result, you can see what’s around you. You can also hear different sounds and so on. However, that doesn’t mean that you will automatically remember the whole scenery of the park with all details. This is the difference between processing unconsciously forty billions sensory inputs and consciously forty sensory inputs. Another important thing we need to know and understand about memory is that it demands a lot of our intellectual resources and energy.
For example, when you pay attention to one thing and something else will distract you, it will be much harder, if not impossible, to recall information from the moment of distraction. This is also why multitasking doesn’t really work. We can focus on one hundred percent on more than one thing. When you try it, you will see on your own that you will either remember one thing more than the other or you will remember nothing at all.
Another thing is that when we have less resources available for paying attention we are more likely to make mistakes. This is also why coaches recommend their clients, when creating new habits, to make them as simple as possible. When we are exhausted or stressed it is harder to recall and follow more complex routine. That’s also why street signs are so simple. When you have to pay attention to the road, you can’t afford to think about every sign you see. That could quickly become lead to accident. The same applies to interface used in cars – simple signs and icons.
First, use concrete and simple terminology and iconography. It will be more memorable and easier to recognize. Second, if your product requires longer sessions of work, build-in some gaps to give users moment to rest and recharge their energy. Third, don’t interrupt users while reading or learning new information. Interruption can cause that the information will be either forgotten or distorted.
No.7: We always reconstruct our memories
We tend to think that our memories are stored on one place in one piece. We also like to think that our memories are unchangeable. Neither of these assumptions is true. Our memories are reconstructed every time we recall them. As we discussed, our memories are stored as patterns of neural connections in our brain and every time we recall something, this connection or path will be fired. This is interesting is because it means that our memories can be changed when we recall it.
Moments we experience after the event can change what we remember. When we recall some memories, new information can also be added. In other words, later experiences can change our memories. Another interesting and quite important thing about our memory is that our brain likes to fill gaps in our memories with fictional events. From our view, these fictional stories will appear real just like the rest of our experience of the event.
This is also why different people have different memories from the same event or accident and why eyewitnesses may not be reliable. Even the words we use while asking someone to describe some event can directly influence what will the other person answer. Couple experiments showed that words can even create memories on events that never actually happened.
First, pay attention to what words do you use when you ask people on feedback. Your words can significantly influence their answer. Second, don’t ask people on how they behaved in the past. They will not remember how exactly they behaved or what they did. It is also possible that part of their memories will be either distorted or completely fictional. Fourth, don’t believe everything people will tell you about how they use your product. Instead, ask them for demonstration.
No.8: Forgetting is feature, not an issue
We often complain about how bad our memory is and how we would love to never forget anything. Many of us see forgetting as something we should fight with. We see it as a problem. Have you ever considered forgetting to be good? Have you ever though about forgetting as a feature, instead of an issue? We learned that our brain can process around forty billions of sensory inputs per second. Imagine what could happen if you would never forget these information.
Imagine that you would remember everything you saw, hear or taste in every single moment of your life. Good or bad, every memory would be stored in your brain forever. Would such a life be heaven or hell? Would you be even able to function on a daily basis? Sometimes, it is better to forget certain things we don’t need to remember. Sure, there are many memories we would have wanted to keep. Still, it is smaller sacrifice to forget one thing here or there than to remember everything forever. Out of that we could also go crazy.
First, we forget and we will. Second, what we forget is not our conscious decision. This decision is made by our brain. Third, your designs should take into account forgetting. If there is some important information, don’t assume that people will remember it. Some people will, some people won’t. Make sure to highlight it, notify people about it and make it easy to find. Fourth, concentrate important information on one place, such as FAQ, help, wiki, dashboard, etc.
No.9: Bad memories are the most resistant
Everyone who experienced something bad or even traumatic knows how durable these memories are. What makes bad memory so durable is that it is packed with strong (negative) emotions. Our emotions are processed in part of the brain called amygdala. Amygdala is placed very close to hippocampus. Hippocampus plays crucial role in processing information in the way that helps these information to be stored in long-term our memory. It is no surprise, then, that experiences packed with emotions are so strong and memorable.
I should mention that durability doesn’t make these memories less prone to distortion and errors. Our bad memories can be distorted or manipulated as any other memories. This was also proved by number of studies and experiments. In these experiments, participants were asked to describe specific traumatic experience. Then, couple years later, researchers found these people and asked them to describe the same experience.
The results where quite surprising. More than ninety percent of later descriptions were different from the original. In about fifty percent of cases, descriptions of experiences were different in about two thirds of all details. Some participants even claimed that they didn’t write the original description, although they recognized their handwriting. Conclusion? Bad memory can become erroneous just like good memory. Bad memories just appear more real and true to us because they are more vivid. Unfortunately, that is only false assumption.
First, we are often convinced that our bad memories are true and real because these memories are more vivid. That may not necessarily be true. We can construct fictional memories no matter whether they are good or bad. Second, in the terms of design, we should avoid situations leading to bad experience with our interface design. Users are more likely to remember the bad and negative things than the positive. Every time users will get frustrated, you will have a hard time “fixing” these bad experience.
Closing thought on psychology of design and our memory
Our memory I wonderful and sometimes also unpredictable thing. It determines how we perceive the world around and what we expect to happen. It is impossible to make our designs completely resistant to mistakes caused by “bad” memory. Still, we can at least try to create tools and environments to help users process and handle information. This way, we can create welcoming experience users will not only appreciate and love, but look for. We can use technology for good.
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