Total (Memory) Recall

January 31st, 2012
Published on
January 31st, 2012

Have you ever walked into a room and promptly forgotten what you came in for? Judging by the nods of agreement from my friends and family it’s a common experience. Recent research goes some way to explain this phenomenon (nicknamed “Roomnesia”) and hints at possibilities for combating– even utilizing – its effects.

Even the most arbitrary boundaries give shape to our memories.

Psychologists who study memories believe they are laid down in the brain in a way analogous to the chapters of a book. Information stored in the current chapter is much easier to recall than information stored in a previous one. Psychologists call these discrete sections “memory episodes.” The research suggests that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it harder for us to recall aspects from a previous episode (such as why we came into the room)! Interestingly, in two of the three experiments, psychologists tested subjects in a virtual environment – in other words, subjects didn’t even need to be physically walking around to experience memory loss.

If new memory episodes are created in this way, what impact does this have on the journey our visitors take through our websites? Should we avoid making visitors “walk through” complicated forms split across multiple pages? Should we cram everything that’s important on the homepage? Or be constantly reminding them why they’re here and where they are?

Usability Expert Jakob Neilsen suggests we design for ‘Recognition over recall’. In his article Ten Usability Heuristics he warns “the user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another.” This seems to align very well with the room theory – by forcing users to remember information you increase the likelihood that their recall will fail and their experience will be frustrating.

A practical application

So with this research fresh in our minds, what techniques can we employ to improve our user’s experience – to help them remember what they came in for?

In short: there are plenty to choose from. For example, a lot of my current work focuses on keeping users engaged throughout the holiday booking path. We began by identifying many reasons why customers might drop-off during the course of the booking process:

  • they don’t trust the website
  • they’re forced to create an account too early
  • they’re unhappy with the length of the process
  • they find the price excessive
  • they leave in search of a discount code (and never return)
  • And possibly: they forget how great the product they are about to buy is!

So one of the key elements we always display in the booking path is a summary of where the user is now, product details (inc. total product cost). Where ever possible, we also try to remind them how great this product actually is!

Additional tips for making your website memorable

  • Ensure page titles match the links leading to them. If the user clicks on “Product Details” make sure they see prominent product details on the next page. Similarly, ensure your pay-per-click (PPC) landing pages match the advert your visitor just clicked on. A lot of things can happen between clicking on a link and landing on a page – make sure it’s obvious why the visitor is at the resulting page.

  • Speak your customer’s language. Forcing users to learn and remember new terms isn’t a great strategy. As well as creating doubt in their mind and making them feel stupid, having to remember a new definition will add to the cognitive load of the experience.

  • Never expect the user to remember codes (voucher codes, trip codes, product IDs). Product SKUs and trip codes might mean something to you but your user doesn’t care. Never make them remember information from one screen to another.
  • In search results listings, remind users what it is they searched for. Not only does this reassure the user that their search has been understood, but it also helps them refine their search if the initial results aren’t appropriate.
  • Particularly on an ecommerce site, encourage users to return to items they’ve recently searched for. Product searches can often span many websites and many days. By recognizing a customer and showing them their previous search results you remove their need to try and remember which search terms were successful in the past.

Based on my experience, these suggestions work well to provide “recognition over recall” for when users are navigating websites. Speaking more generally, though, how could this research help our users do more as they bridge the gap between the digital and the analog worlds?

Augmenting contextual memory

There are many ways people recalled previous memory episodes in the past: post-it notes, reminders, calendars, etc. Although most of these tried-and-true technologies have their digital counterparts, software has remained rather divorced from the real world. With the recent proliferation of mobile technology, however, those boundaries have become more and more transparent. For example, when Apple’s iOS5 update introduced ”Reminders,” their marketing site essentially describes them as tools for managing Memory episodes:

Next time you think to yourself, “Don’t forget to…,” just pull out your [iOS device] and jot it down. … Since Reminders can be location based, you’ll get an alert as soon as you pull into the supermarket parking lot.

Reminders are a great way to recall previous memory episodes. If only Apple could improve the geographical accuracy of Reminders, you could easily use it to remind yourself why you’re going into that room!

Another application that promises to aid our contextual memories is OmniFocus for the iPhone. Their ‘Maps’ screen shows you the available actions that are closest to you. “For instance, if you’re out buying groceries, OmniFocus can show you the closest grocery store and create an instant shopping list.” In the world of contextual reminders, it seems there’s a lot of grocery shopping to be done!

Implications of digital ubiquity

Finally, it’s worth discussing the implications of this subject in an even greater context.

Recent research suggests the Internet is becoming an external part of our memory and that we are experiencing “reduced memory for the actual information, but enhanced memory for where to find the information.” In other words, we can’t remember the name of the director of Memento but we can remember where to find that information. It’s easier to remember one “room” (IMDb) rather than the many actors and directors that inhabit our world. By delivering high quality content through a trustworthy website you help to make your site memorable as the store of relevant information.

Does this research lend weight to the idea that computers are wrecking our ability to remember? The idea has been floating around for a while and at least anecdotally there seems to be some truth in it. For example, when was the last time you had remember your friends and family’s phone numbers? Knowing this information is available in my phone’s memory (or online) means that I don’t have to make the effort to remember it myself. This is all fine of course – until I lose my phone or Internet access.

Betsy Sparrow concludes: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.” Maybe, given that our memory recall is profoundly flawed, this is a good thing?


  1. Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations | Taylor Francis Online
  2. Ten Usability Heuristics by Jakob Neilsen |
  3. Metamemory and the User Experience by Cassandra Moore|
  4. Is Google Ruining Your Memory? by Jonah Lehrer |

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