This post was considerably re-worked for publication at UX Booth – read the updated version there.
Recent research by Gabriel Radvansky et al  goes some way to explain this phenomenon and in doing so, suggests methods to overcome the temporary amnesia we suffer. In this post I’ll outline his research, his team’s findings and discuss the application to the field of user experience design.
Psychologists believe that memories 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. Radvansky’s findings suggest that the simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, thereby making it harder for us to recall the previous episode – i.e. what it was we came into the room for.
In their experiments, Radvansky and his team had participants walk from room to room, through doorways, picking up objects from a table and depositing them on a subsequent table in another room. Once picked up, the object was hidden from their view in a bag or box that accompanied them. Participants were then questioned about the objects they had with them at regular stages: on entering a new room through an open doorway, or after crossing halfway through a room. Radvansky then showed the participants an object and asked them to recall if it was either the object they were currently carrying or the one they’d just set down.
The outcome of their research showed that: “…walking through doorways serves as an event boundary, thereby initiating the updating of one’s event model – i.e. the creation of a new episode in memory”.
To counter alternative explanations provided by contextual memory theorists, Radvansky ran the experiment several times and with a number of variations. (Contextual memory theory suggests that it is easier to recall information in an environment similar to that which we first stored the memory than in an environment that’s very different – remember your teacher’s advice not to listen to music when revising!). Interestingly; in two of the three variations, Radvansky tested subjects in virtual environments – three-dimensional recreations displayed on a computer monitor. In other words, you don’t need to be physically active to create new memory episodes.
If memory is affected in this way, what impact does that have on the journey our visitors take through our websites? Should we avoid making visitors walk through form split across multiple pages? Should we cram everything that’s important on the homepage? Be constantly reminding them why they’re here and where they are?
The booking summary
A lot of my work focusses on keeping the user engaged throughout a booking path. There are many reasons why customers will drop-off during the course of a booking:
- they might find the final price too expensive
- account creation is too taxing
- the number of fields is daunting
- shipping costs are excessive
- they’re distracted by the possibility of a voucher discount and never return
- And possibly: they forget how great the product they are about to buy is!
And so one of the key elements we always display in the booking path is a summary of where the user is now. Going back to Radvansky’s experiment above – I like to think we’re reminding customers what’s in their bag.
So with the research fresh in our minds, what other techniques can we employ to improve the user’s experience?
Don’t expect the user to remember codes (voucher codes, trip codes, product IDs)
Product SKU‘s and trip codes might mean something to you but your user doesn’t care. Never make them remember information from one screen to another, there’s simply no need.
Ensure page titles match links leading to them
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. This could be a “design thing” (the branding matches) or a “copywriting thing” (the page titles are meaningful), just make sure it’s a “done thing”.
Use natural language that your customers understand
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 more friction to the experience.
Make your site memorable as the repository of information
Recent research [PDF, 200Kb] 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.” Simply put: we can’t remember the name of the director of Memento but we can remember where to find the information (e.g. IMDb). By making your website memorable as the store of relevant information, you might gain return visitors. Read more at UX Mag.
It’s easy to forget what you went into a room for. Make your visitors journey through your website less painful by offering memory prompts and reducing the cognitive load.
This post was considerably re-worked for publication at UX Booth - read the updated version there.
 Radvansky, G., Krawietz, S., and Tamplin, A. (2011). Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64 (8), 1632-1645 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2011.571267