A strong short-term memory has many benefits. A typical test of your short-term memory would be a quick re-call exercise, which we can simulate by following these steps:
1. We will show you a list of objects.
2. You'll be asked to look at the list for 30 seconds, without taking any notes, and then scroll down the page to hide them from view.
3. Try and write down as many objects from memory as possible within one minute.
4. When you're done, scroll back to the list, and see how many you got remembered.
Look at the list of objects below for 30 seconds, after the time is up, scroll down to completely cover the list.
Scroll down until the list is completely obscured.
How did you do?
Generally, the average person will score between 5 and 9 on this exercise. In regards to working memory, Miller's law state's seven as the magic number, plus or minus two.
In 1956, George Miller asserted that the span of immediate memory and absolute judgment were both limited to around 7 pieces of information. The main unit of information is the bit, the amount of data necessary to make a choice between two equally likely alternatives.
The insight continues:
Likewise, 4 bits of information is a decision between 16 binary alternatives (4 successive binary decisions). The point where confusion creates an incorrect judgment is the channel capacity. In other words, the quantity of bits which can be transmitted reliably through a channel, within a certain amount of time.
Aside from memory games, we should ask what the relevance of such a law may be. After all, knowing a general likelihood of human behaviour is surely useful when designing for a mass market.
With regards to user experience design, we can consider how the end user will process the information we present them. If we offer too many options, then the user may find the interface confusing or overwhelming. Therefore, aiming to have a maximum of seven items on screen can improve the overall user experience and usability of a particular design.
When we performed the memory exercise in our office, we got varying results. Interestingly, no one scored less than seven. Whilst the average was eight, the best score was 14. Yet, relying on strong short term memory ability would create an unfavourable product that alienates a large portion of users—According to Miller's law.
Therefore, when we are faced with the challenge of presenting longer lists of data, we should use the process of 'chunking' to make information more accessible.
Chunking is the act of breaking down information into easily digestible chunks.
A common example of this is how people remember mobile phone numbers. You may find that people break down elven digit numbers into a section of five and four or even into a series of micro chunks. For example:
The phone number: 07759225050 may become:
077 - 59 - 22 - 5050
07759 - 225050
077 - 5922 - 5050
Our brains often naturally look for patterns or easy opportunities to compartmentalise data, whether it's repeated sections, similarities, trends, or other useful patterns.
A designer will use chunking to simplify the user's experience, making the end product more pleasant or enjoyable.
Armed with the knowledge of Miller's Law, and chunking, you'll now start noticing good UX design that sought to help you process information.
A common example can be found in your purse or wallet. Bank cards typically have a 16 digit number across the front, that most people would struggle to recall easily. To simplify this, almost every card uses chunking to split the number into four sections of four numbers.
This continues into digital examples through mobile applications and user interfaces. As mentioned above, phone numbers are typical examples, and on many applications the number is automatically broken into chunks as such:
Diving further into UX design, we can find some great examples of automation and decision making in applications. Spotify effectively split their recommendations into categories, offering a neat variety of choices. Their pick of six options, based on user listening and playlist choices, concisely packages a manageable choice. This is a great example of useful UX automation truly designed to enhance time spent on their platform.
Further to taking options or long data, and chunking them for simplicity, we can consider content itself.
For example, a huge wall of text may seem daunting to read. We can make content more appealing by splitting the text into short paragraphs with supporting headings. Studies have found that reading speed increases when text is displayed in a certain way—taking into consideration aspects such as font size, spacing, sentence length, and paragraph widths (and lengths). Therefore, good UX design doesn't simply convey information, it optimises how the information is presented.
A secondary law comes into consideration here, the law of proximity:
Elements that are close together tend to be perceived as a unified group. This straightforward law states that items close to each other tend to be grouped together, whereas items further apart are less likely to be grouped together.
- Gestalt Psychology
This argues that by keeping related items closer together, it aids the user experience by chunking relevant information in sections. This could be achieved by using background colours, horizontal rules and even white or negative space to clearly distinguish related (or non-related) content.
This tactic is commonly seen via online newspapers, with pieces grouped together by the overall topics such as health, politics, entertainment or sport. The chunking here not only helps users quickly find data of their interest, but can also help them save their time by avoiding information that isn't applicable to them. Keeping users away from items that won't engage their interest, is sometimes as useful as pointing them towards things that will–reducing bounce rates and keeping attention fixated on your content rather than competitors.
Even video content can be effectively chunked. A simple way to do this is to organise content into chapters, and use time stamps to help guide users instantly to their key interest areas.
To unravel the thread further, we can introduce 'Micro Chunking'. This is also often referred to syntactic cueing or phase formatting.
This is information design done to sentences, drawing necessary emphasis to particular passages or words. As little as 2 lines of code can be used to automatically draw attention to the high-semantic words necessary to grab attention and convey your messaging with more impact.
Asym guides user attention through a technique called "chunking." It optimizes written content by reducing cognitive load and improving comprehension by up to 40%.
The tool developed by Asym takes the chunking concept to the micro level of normal text content. Normal sentences are tweaked to subtly yet effectively improve the user reading experience.
While this may seem to be an incredibly abstract creation, it actually reflects some well-known oratory devices. Great speakers know that often what you don't say, or even the pauses you take, can be as important as what you say.
You've heard: "It's not what you know, it's who you know", well now consider:
It's not what you type, it's how you display it.
As always a popular theory isn't with critics.
Sometimes complexity exists for a reason, and to simplify it too much will detract from the quality of the output. Furthermore, assuming less of the user could be an ignorant error for designers—not everyone wants their choices limited or bundled into small selections.
Don’t use the “magical number seven” to justify unnecessary design limitations.
There's also the possibility that designers might use Miller's Law as a cop-out to simplify their workload. There needs to be logical decision-making behind choices that reflect the best outcomes for the end users.
Microsoft famously claimed that our attention spans dropped from an average of 13 seconds in 2000, to only 8 seconds in 2013. Humorously, it's worth pointing out that the average attention span of a goldfish is said to be 9 seconds. So what does this information mean?
It means we can expect our audiences to switch off faster, to give up faster, to ignore your messaging at the first sign of awkwardness, or to simply seek the easiest and quickest options.
As designers, and as marketers, we're competing in a crowded space of quick blips, tik toks, and sound bites–trying to create intrigue, impact and allure an accelerated elevator pitch. Tolerance is dropping, for anything less than highly thought-out design...ergo, we need to keep pushing the envelope and think and act deeply.
As Matthew Ingram from Fortune pointed out in 2015,
Attention has become the most valuable commodity in the media world.
Great business opportunity inevitably follows wherever attention goes.
To share the memory test directly with colleagues, use our interactive figma prototype: