Great Designers’ Secret Weapon: Working Memory

Imagine you’re designing a mobile app and are considering different means of navigation. One way has a bottom navigation bar. Another, a side navigation that slides out from the left. Another is pure swiping, left/right/up/down. A fourth combines bottom navigation with swiping. A final option relies on a cluster of buttons to navigate.

Now add content.

Now tap through each in your mind, comparing pros and cons, paying attention to see if/when/how/where each system breaks.

Could you do it, even briefly, by thinking only, without sketching or visual aids and without prototyping? At one point, I could have (maybe). I could probably do it for two or three options now, but five? And yet the best designers I’ve ever worked with have been able to do this: keeping many, often conflicting, states in their working memories.

Why is this valuable? It can allow you to generate more options quickly, on-the-fly. It can save time by allowing you to discard those options that are unworkable or at least worse compared to other options. It lets you think through complex conditional items, such as through every state for a button. Being able to see different permutations quickly can cause you to avoid issues in development, like when a state you’ve forgotten to account for is suddenly an issue and the whole design breaks.

This is not your father’s theory of memory of 7 plus or minus two. (That’s Short-Term Memory.) No, this kind mental work I’m talking about is where we store information (linguistic, visual-spacial) while we’re processing it: Working Memory. Working Memory exists between short- and long-term memory. The kind of work designers do is specifically concerned with what cognitive psychologist Alan Baddeley calls Viso-Spacial Working Memory and the Episodic Buffer. Viso-Spacial Working Memory allows people to mentally manipulate images/objects. If you imagine what this article would look like with a yellow background or turned 90 degrees, you’re using your Viso-Spacial Working Memory. The Episodic Buffer allows us to stitch together images and words into a story. It allows you to weave multiple, disparate things together into a sequence. It’s how our thoughts aren’t just discrete flashes. Using the Episodic Buffer to hold a few “stories” or a longer, complex “story” is a key skill in interaction design in particular. It’s how you can think through states over time—design across the fourth dimension.

More working memory allows you to be more creative by allowing you to generate more—and more novel—ideas. This is also a test of attention, of your ability to block out sensory distractions and do deep work—everything our distraction-filled modern world works against. The longer you can generate complex ideas in working memory, the better you are (and will become over time) at blocking out distractions.

You can train your working memory or, since design work will often force you to do it anyway, push yourself to test the boundaries of your own working memory when solving a states problem. Before you pick up a whiteboard marker or a pen (much less crank out a prototype), nudge yourself to (gasp!) think the different states through beforehand. See how far you can get. It might just (with practice over time anyway) change your life.