Human Memory

Your constantly-updated definition of Human Memory and collection of videos and articles

What is Human Memory?

There are many types of memory, notably short and long-term memory. User experience (UX) designers cater to the limits of memory to make products easier to use.

All UX designers must know how memory works and how to design around it. This is particularly true for information visualization designers, who must ensure that the viewer readily understands their work for it to be immediately helpful, which results in a much more visually digestible overall user experience.

Information architecture and clean layouts also help users identify and remember the essential pieces of information, a crucial element of interaction design.

Human memory is a powerful mental process that has many implications in life and how you experience things, from remembering meaningful events to enabling you to execute tasks and achieve goals.

In essence, human memory has three facets: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. The designer is most concerned with the first two types and strategically designs to appeal to short-term and sensory memory.

Designers often design around "Task load," the amount of information or choices a person can process simultaneously, also called "working memory."

One of the most valuable pieces of information about task load is that humans have trouble remembering and engaging with anything with more than seven (give or take 2) task items. Designers consider this memory limitation when presenting information and wireframing products to provide the most memorable and efficient user experience.

Types of Mnemonics

Mnemonics is the science of memory, and people use a few interesting mnemonic devices to "hack" our brain's programming to improve their memories. The brain is naturally unreliable at remembering abstract things like numbers, dates or concepts. However, it is naturally very good at remembering stories and remembering spaces.

The first method is to turn abstract information into a story that is easier to remember, usually through memorable phrases that tell a short story. One common English-language mnemonic phrase to remember the colors of the rainbow is:

"Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain."

It helps us remember the following:

"Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet."

The other method dates back to ancient Greece, called "the method of loci." These ancient thinkers noticed that it was much easier to remember the location of physical objects than abstract thoughts. However, with training, they could create a way to activate "spatial memory" to memorize abstract concepts or facts.

They developed a technique called a "mind palace," where a person creates an imaginary version of a space and populates it with object versions of abstract thoughts.

For example, a person might imagine their childhood bedroom and place a memory on a shelf in that imaginary bedroom. To remember the memory again, they imagine the bedroom and look on the shelf for the memory.

There are memory competitions, and memory champions use techniques that combine or adapt this concept for more impressive feats of memory, like memorizing the order of a randomly shuffled deck of cards.

How to Boost User Memory

For designers, this means we have a few ways to improve the memory of our users.

  • Employ storytelling to make information more easily digestible and memorable. 

  • Have clean, logical menus and a visual hierarchy that is easy to understand and scan.

  • Design for recognition vs. recall or interfaces with items people can quickly identify instead of recalling them from scratch.

  • Leverage spatial memory. Augmented and virtual reality, in particular, can easily activate spatial memory to improve the amount of information users can store.

Learn More About Human Memory

Watch journalist and US memory champion Josh Foer's Ted talk, Feats of memory anyone can do.

For more on Josh Foer's Article on Mnemonic methods, read Forget Me Not: How to Win the U.S. Memory Championship.

See how ancient Greeks used Mnemonics in Method of Loci: Ancient Mnemonic Technique Used by Greeks and Romans Effectively Double Brain's Memory Storage Skills.

Literature on Human Memory

Here’s the entire UX literature on Human Memory by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Human Memory

Take a deep dive into Human Memory with our course Information Visualization .

Information visualization skills are in high demand, partly thanks to the rise in big data. Tech research giant Gartner Inc. observed that digital transformation has put data at the center of every organization. With the ever-increasing amount of information being gathered and analyzed, there’s an increasing need to present data in meaningful and understandable ways.

In fact, even if you are not involved in big data, information visualization will be able to help in your work processes as a designer. This is because many design processes—including conducting user interviews and analyzing user flows and sales funnels—involve the collation and presentation of information. Information visualization turns raw data into meaningful patterns, which will help you find actionable insights. From designing meaningful interfaces, to processing your own UX research, information visualization is an indispensable tool in your UX design kit.

This course is presented by Alan Dix, a former professor at Lancaster University in the UK. A world-renowned authority in the field of human-computer interaction, Alan is the author of the university-level textbook Human-Computer Interaction. “Information Visualization” is full of simple but practical lessons to guide your development in information visualization. We start with the basics of what information visualization is, including its history and necessity, and then walk you through the initial steps in creating your own information visualizations. While there’s plenty of theory here, we’ve got plenty of practice for you, too.

All open-source articles on Human Memory

Please check the value and try again.

Open Access - Link to us!

We believe in Open Access and the democratization of knowledge. Unfortunately, world class educational materials such as this page are normally hidden behind paywalls or in expensive textbooks.

If you want this to change, , link to us, or join us to help democratize design knowledge!