User interfaces against working memory

Have you ever ran into user interfaces that require you to remember lots of information for a long time, while simultaneously doing some other task? I have and they drive me crazy. Seems to me some developers and designers know very little about the basics of human working memory – the temporary workspace where we manipulate and process information. It’s interesting that on the one hand some developers may think users are stupid if they can’t use the system, on the other hand they tend to develop systems assuming users have some kind of super brains.

Working memory basics should be part of every developer’s and designer’s education. There are many good articles about the topic, such as these 20 facts about working memory and this article on cognitive load. If you don’t want to read any of those, at least know these three facts about working memory:

  1. It has very small capacity – it can hold only 4-5 bits of information at one time
  2. It holds info for very short durations – around 10 seconds
  3. It gets easily overloaded – when that happens, users will have difficulties

Working memory basics should be part of every developer’s and designer’s education.

For designers and developers here’s three tips how you can support working memory, and while doing it, look pretty smart yourself:

  1. Only show those functions and info that user needs to the task at hand
  2. Group related elements into meaningful chunks
  3. Use consistent interaction patterns and terminology which is familiar to users

I promise the users will thank you, and so will I!

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