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Memory in UX

June 9th, 2021 / Product design

What is memory?

Memory is our brain's ability to encode, store and retrieve information voluntarily.
Basically, it is this capacity that allows us to remember facts, ideas, sensations, relate concepts with each other... And in short, all those stimuli that occurred in the past and we want to recover.

Next we will look at a very basic classification of memory to get an overview of the topic, and then we will focus on the three types of memory that will have the most impact on our users' experience.

Memory types.

Memory can be classified based on the time during which we can remember certain information stored in our brain. In the following image you can see it graphically:

Time scale of memory

In this article we will focus on short, medium and long term memories. We will see what they consist of and we will also see some examples that work very well to improve the UX when our users need to use their memory to achieve their goals.

1. Short-term memory.

Short-term memory, also called working memory, stores information for seconds/minutes and enables the accomplishment of cognitive tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and problem solving. The bits of information handled by this memory is found in the electrical activity of our brain, sort of like neurons firing back and forth!

It has a limited storage capacity of 7±2 elements, as the famous Miller's law dictates. Added to that, we must take into account that during the use of applications we suffer many interruptions, so the probability of forgetting information is even higher.

In addition, the use of the mobile device itself continually competes for our cognitive resources as we have to simultaneously perform mobility (e.g., walking), environmental (e.g., being aware of our surroundings) and social (e.g., following a conversation if we are with someone) tasks.

Let's take as an example that scenario where you receive an SMS with a numerical code to enter in the application. You have to open the message, memorize the digits, go back to the application and enter them.

— "Nine, four, two, three, six..."

Depending on the tasks we are doing simultaneously, it will be more or less tedious, but... Isn't it always nice when the application does the work for you? 😉

2. Mezzanine memory.

This memory stores information for minutes/hours, and this is due to various chemical reactions that occur in our brain when our neurons are activated.

This memory has a lot to do with context, i.e., with what we are doing at a particular moment and also with episodic short-term memory, i.e., with what you have done recently.

Let's take as an example a very common scenario, in which you are watching a series and something comes up in between (you have met your friends for a drink) and when you come back you want to continue with the series but you don't even remember in which chapter you stayed, much less in which minute.

— "What chapter was I...? What minute did I stop...?"

Well, this blue button solves all our possible problems with mezzanine memory 🙂

Amazon Prime Example

This design would also help us with long-term memory in a scenario where we stop the series for a considerably longer period of time.

3. Long-term memory.

This memory manages all that information that we can remember after several days or even always, and this is because those bits of information are stored in the physical connections that exist between the neurons of our brain.

We could define it as a repository of data that has to do with all our past knowledge.

Its storage capacity is unlimited, but its access is slower than in the others. The context usually helps to retrieve this type of information, and when we get it, we access large amounts of information at once.

Let's take as an example a scenario where you were collecting information for a university paper, and you are going to continue it after a week (let's say you were on exams 😉). In this situation it is practically impossible for you to remember which pages you have already entered to collect information and which ones you have not.

— "Which pages did I visit that time...?"

Well, the different color of the visited pages solves all our possible problems with long-term memory 🙂

Google example

This design would also help in buffering in case we are performing the searches with a time separation of minutes/hours.

Takeaway.

When we design our products, a very good practice is to perform a task analysis defining what kind of memory users will need for each task.

The next thing to do is to ask ourselves the following questions:

— "What would happen if the user suffers an interruption?"

If the answer is that he would be lost, we will have found a Gulf of Execution and we must design a solution so that our user can get on with his task and achieve his goals.

Wanting to do something and not being able to due to lack of information is super frustrating, and we don't want that for our users! ✌️

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