7 plus or minus 2

Subject: 7 plus or minus 2
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Fri, 30 Aug 1996 14:22:41 -0500

George Miller's (?) research on short-term memory (sorry,
don't have the article handy) found that most people have
no trouble holding 7 discrete items in their heads, hence
the 7 digits in our telephone numbers. (The +/-2 part
refers to the range of variation.) I've seen frequent
attacks on people who extrapolate this research to
instructions, user manuals, etc., but I have to say the
attacks are unjust... if only because there's no research
to support them, any more than there's research to support
extending Miller's findings beyond phone numbers to
software docs.

For example, if pressing 7 numbers in sequence (to phone
someone) is a practical maximum for a mixed audience, then
surely following 7 steps in sequence is equally complex. I
hate instructions where I must look back and forth between
a manual and the screen several times just to get a task
done; I much prefer the ones where I can hold the 7 or
fewer steps in my short-term memory and step through the
task without looking back at the book. YMMV, and I can't
cite any research to support me.

The important point is that Miller discovered a good
principle, even if it isn't _the_ single unifying principle
behind all communication, and it should be evaluated by the
same standards as any other tool: does it work here, and if
so, how? More importantly, how can we do some audience
analysis to see if our hypothesis is correct for our
specific context?

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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