Augmented memory online 

Working memory, chunking and tabs — what interaction design can learn from psychology

Google remembers pretty much everything we do online and we are all more or less freaked out about it. But if Google remembers, if Google has a memory, why aren’t we benefitting more from it? Re-finding is defined as the activity to find previously viewed search results and has been estimated to constitute as much as 40% of all online searches.

We are already starting to treat the web as an extension of our memory and this tendency is likely to increase as we develop and define cloud computing. Our demands and expectations on browsers and search engines are going to grow. Can we look to our own memory structures for inspiration of how to improve re-finding (i.e our online memory)? What can we learn from our Long-Term-Memory, Short-Term-Memory, and our episodic memory to create a better experience?

I did a short design exercise to see what we can learn from what we know about working memory and how it could improve the tab experience.

Working memory refers to the “ability to actively hold information in the mind needed to do complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning” (Wikipedia). The working memory is closely connected to, but not the same as the short-term memory. We are said to be able to hold about seven plus-or-minus two items in the working memory at a time. Below are seven number. If you are reasonably average, you should be able to memorise them and recite them back.

One way the brain tries to exceed this storage capability is by chunking. By chunking items together into new compound items, we are able to remember more information while still sticking to the general magic number seven. Below are the same seven numbers chunked into three more information heavy items.

It has struck me that the multiple tabs structure offered by most browsers, to some extent already work as our online working memory. With no scientific evidence backing the following claim, I would still venture to guess that the average person keeps maybe around seven tabs open at once. Tab junkies, like myself, like to work with many more tabs, spread across multiple windows. At some point, even at seven tabs, it becomes tricky to deal with them all. We struggle to navigate between them as we forget where certain tabs are located. Below, a normal tab structure.

Applying our knowledge about how our mind deals in this situation, we can try to chunk the tabs into groups. The groups of tabs could be grouped based on content/topic e.g. recipes and cars or they could be based on type e.g. all youtube tabs together and all blogs together. They could also be based on behaviour. For instance, the browser could remember if the user previously had grouped sites together and mimic that organisation. Another approach would be to group sites that links from one another (⌘ click or CtrlT) and start a new group if the user initiated a new tab from scratch (⌘T or CtrlT). Below are the same number of tabs as above but chunked into four distinct groups.

Although the definition of re-finding doesn’t generally include this type of activity, I do think tabs has a place in the discussion around how our memory can be better supported online. Re-finding is normally discussed in the context of search engines not browsers but in cases like Google, the boundaries are blurring. Tabs might deal with a very short-term form of re-finding but it is arguably the most important memory-supporting-online-feature out there right now. It is certainly the most frequently used.