If you are starting to sense a pattern in Nielsen’s Usability Heuristics, you are spot on! Many of the heuristics we have already discussed piggy-back off of each other or address the same problem from different angles. Heuristic #5 continues this trend, following on the heels of #3 (Consistency and Standards).
Recognition Rather Than Recall
Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
– Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design
Dr. Nielsen expands on this concept in an article that delves into the basics of memory and how information is accessed in the brain. In Summary: Psychologists point out that information in the brain is stored in small pieces or chunks (coincidentally this is one of the main drivers in recent educational advances related to microlearning and information chunking as opposed to content-heavy, lecture-style courses). These chunks of information are accessed by the brain based on three criteria: Practice (how often you’ve accessed it), Recency (how long ago you’ve accessed a particular chunk) and Context (what you are currently focused on and what associations your focus has on the chunk). The higher the score in any of these fronts, the quicker you will arrive at the correct chunk of information.
These informational chunks (memories) don’t exist in a vacuum. They are associated with other chunks of information and thinking of one of them will raise the context and association levels with memories tied to it. For example, my grandmother loved to drink tea. Whenever we visited, she would make hot tea to drink and she always had plenty of flavors around. As a teenager I started drinking tea with her during our visits. Now, two decades from my teen years whenever I drink tea, memories of my grandmother and our visits come into my mind automatically, simply because I associate the ritual and memories of drinking tea with those memories of her. That’s the power of association.
This is precisely why Recognition is favored in UI design…it has more queues and stronger association with more information than recall. The classic example of recall is a password. You arrive at the password box and must select the correct password from a chunk of memory, without any other queues to help you out. This is why Password Managers are so successful; they recognize it is difficult to recall the information because there is so little to go on. Recognition, on the other hand, requires more initial queues to get it started, but once you do you can access more information in your brain. It would be much easier to know your password if the site also displayed three hint questions automatically next to the password box…although this would be a horrible thing for security!
The User Interface should be designed in such a way that there are as many hints as possible for what a user needs to do next. Things like including past searches, tool tips and screen hints (as opposed to full tutorials) help users to recognize the information the system is asking them for, rather than having to recall it from few queues. Cognitive load is decreased, and the system becomes much more “intuitive” and “easy to use”, rather than trying to guess what the system is asking you for and inevitably guessing wrong.