Link mania: there's nothing magical about Miller's number 7!

Subject: Link mania: there's nothing magical about Miller's number 7!
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2001 09:25:51 -0500

Paul Newbold reports: <<I think 4+/-2 is too low for the number of links on
screen. The actual number is 7 +/-2 which was established back in 1956
(Millar, the Magic Number 7 +/- 2).>>

Poppycock. Miller's work relates to holding information in short-term
memory, not to objects that remain visible onscreen, and using the "magic
number 7" simplistically, as suggested above, relies on a misunderstanding
of Miller's research. Nonetheless, more recent research (see, for example,
several of the articles on Web heuristics in the August 2000 issue of
_Technical Communication_) suggests some interesting connections with
Miller's research in the sense of how many links should be visible at a
time, how to arrange links hierarchically, and so on. I believe it was Jakob
Nielsen's research that suggested 5 links (7-2) based on empirical evidence,
not Miller's study per se; using only two links (4-2) simply won't work for
any reasonably complex body of information.

When would Miller's observations be relevant in terms of the numbers of
links per page? When someone doesn't know which link to choose on a page
full of links, and must hold the (say) 5 most likely links in memory while
reading through all the dozens of others to see whether they are relevant to
the reader's task. (Better design of the hierarchy might obviate this need.)
When would his observations be entirely irrelevant? When the page consists
of (say) alphabetical links to the names of authors in a compendium of
online papers. In the first case, readers must actually remember the links
so they can compare them mentally and make a decision; in the latter case,
all the reader must recognize is the alphetical hierarchy, and memorization
is not an issue. Other situations may combine aspects of these two extremes,
but only the first example clearly requires you to minimize the number of
links on the page.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

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