Short-term Memory and UI Design

Not too long ago, I attended a talk by Jeff Johnson hosted by BayCHI. He introduced his new book Designing with the Mind in Mind, which reveals the psychology behind user interface design. His lessons covered everything from Gestalt theory to blind spots, but what I found most interesting was the influence of memory.

Short-term memory is best described as the conscious mind. It is what is happening right now. Is it how many numbers you can remember, which is 3-5 unrelated items (e.g. a zip code) or more if the items are related (e.g. 3-5 random words vs. a sentence of words). The latter uses the brain’s feature detection, which draws on connections from previous experiences—more neurons fire and trigger recognition.

A scenario of this is if I am typing a collection of words into a search engine and those words are out of sight once the search results are presented, I may become frustrated as a user because the task has distracted me from recalling what words I entered into the search field. To help the user recall what words were used, some search results have the words highlighted. Providing cues like this will help the user focus on the task and aid in the recall of information.

What I walked away with was that asking a user to keep track of features in his/her short-term memory is work. Good design is invisible and UI/UX is no exception. Intuition is based on experience, so the more unified and consistent and experience is, the more likely a task will seem effortless.

Short-term memory does have its faults as seen here in this video. While entertaining in a prank sort of way, it also shows how task and distraction can blind us from what is literally right in front of us. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYeJ1BHHDIg

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