UX researcher and cognitive psychologist Rob Youmans is back with us to discuss three more cognitive psychology concepts and how designers can use them to create better, more intuitive experiences for their users. This time around we’re focusing on the power of memory.
How often do you take your user’s working memory into consideration when you’re designing something?
If you’re digging deep into your brain to try to remember what working memory is, guess what? You’re using your working memory right now to try to retrieve files from your long-term memory.
And if that makes no sense to you, have no fear. Rob Youmans is here to help.
The cognitive psychologist and former professor also wears the rather large hat of YouTube’s Head of UX Research Sciences. He joins us for a second time to discuss the role understanding cognitive psychology concepts can play in helping UX designers optimize user experiences.
Understanding Working Memory
We use our working memories constantly. It is how we remember things that are happening right now. Psychologists, Youmans tells me, like to compare it to computers. Think of your working memory as your ram and your long-term memory (the stuff you have stored away) as your hard-drive.
“They’re different types of memory and they have different purposes,” he said.
“Working memory holds four plus or minus two items. It lasts at maximum, and this is if you’re really trying, 20 seconds. It’s this incredibly fragile memory system. It doesn’t hold much and it doesn’t last long, but it’s robust because it’s how we process information in real time in the moment.”
What he means by that is some users have the capacity to remember six items, while others may remember only two. Basically, it’s easy for users to forget things.
One solution to this problem is for designers to create situations that ask users to engage their minds through effortful processing. This asks users to think about things or engage with content in such a manner that it converts these working memories into long-term memories. When things are filed into long-term memory, it helps to make processes more automatic and intuitive.
“The most frequent violations of this are when you’re asking someone to do something in a series and they’re expected to remember everything in the series,” Youmans said. “The main thing for designers is to simply be aware of [working memory] so when you’re asking a user to hold information in mind, being mindful that it’s a very precious commodity and it can’t hold that much and it doesn’t last that long leads to better designs.”
Primacy and Recency
This is related to another cognitive psychology concept called primacy and recency. Youmans gives the example of teaching a lecture. Students are more likely to remember items at the beginning of the lecture (primacy) and the end of the lecture (recency) while forgetting much of the content in the middle.
The same is often true in user experiences.
“When it comes to design, the place that I see primacy and recency in particular is in terms of onboarding,” Youmans said. “When you start to learn about a new product there’s often a tutorial, wizard, instructions or something. It’s wise for designers to consider primacy and recency in this context because you’re going to want to put the most important information first or last if you’re hoping that someone is going to remember them later as they use your product or system.”
Or, as we say in journalism, if it bleeds it leads.
Another reason to take this into consideration is because when users forget things it can bring unnecessary tension or frustration to an experience, casting a negative shadow over the experience itself. Whether the user understands the logic behind this concept is not relevant. It often instead makes the user feel inadequate or causes them to question the validity of the experience. Talk about a lose-lose situation.
Working memory can also inhibit designers in a number of ways. One particular example is called design fixation and its when the designer himself becomes so fixated on a design solution he is unable to see any other option even when other options or methods might be better.
“Say I showed you a picture of a bicycle and I said, I want you to come up with a different design, something better. There’s a real tendency from just seeing that previous example for people to fixate and copy that previous bicycle. That’s called design fixation,” Youmans said. “It’s a weird phenomenon because in extreme cases you can show people negative examples and say here’s what you shouldn’t design, here’s a terrible website, never design something like this, and then ask designers to go off and when they come back, often times, there’s detectable elements of that previous website. It’s called fixation because they fixate on these previous designs.”.
Youmans has conducted extensive research on this topic and compiled it into a research paper called, The effects of physical prototyping and group work on the reduction of design fixation.
He wanted to know if there was a way for designers to reduce design fixation and conducted two different experiments: one that involved group work and one that involved physical prototyping.
“What’s to me the most interesting about this is that the designers seem unaware that they’re doing it and when you point it out to them they’re embarrassed. They’re like; I can’t believe I did that. It seems to be this sort of unconscious bias towards copying previous designs,” Youmans said.
What he found was that there was a tendency even for groups to fixate. “If I have three designers and I show all three of them a previous example, they’re, I don’t want to say equally likely to fixate, but there was no evidence it was any different than a designer working on their own.”
What he found instead is that when it came to prototyping the design, whether with pen and paper or physical materials, designers tended to fixate less.
“What isn’t clear about that is why that reduced fixation and for that I still don’t have a crystal clear answer. My theory was that there was something about actually building out a product or a prototype that caused people to realize oh shoot, this is a lot like the previous example,” Youmans said.
Incidentally, he also said this provides another argument as to why prototyping is such an important part of the design process.
The Einstellung Effect
Lastly, design fixation is closely related to another theory called the Einstellung effect. This is when people become so fixated on a particular method of doing something that it becomes automatic and so they continue doing things this way even when a better solution becomes apparent.
When Abraham Luchins was researching this effect in 1942, he would tell study participants, “Don’t be blind.”
“When he did that the numbers dramatically reduced in terms of the number of people who were fixated on the old problem set,” Youmans said. “What you can draw from that is that once you’re aware that these things are a human tendency, you’re not blind to that.”
So designers, remember (pun intended) to keep an open mind (another pun intended) when designing user experiences. Our minds play a powerful role not only in how we experience things, but also in how we create them.