Re: Long Lists (was: The semi-magic number 7)

Subject: Re: Long Lists (was: The semi-magic number 7)
From: David Cramer <dacramer -at- VIDEON -dot- WAVE -dot- CA>
Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 09:26:04 -0500

On Tue, 11 May 1999 Daniel D Hall said:

> One other consideration arises, however. When working with menus, lists
>of more than 12-15 items take up an awful lot of screen real-estate. This is
>a problem I frequently encounter when helping PC novices. Often their
>windows <START> menu has 30 - 40 items/folders, and obscures two-thirds of
>the screen when open. I have also found this to be true with Corel's
>PhotoPaint 8. Several of the menus are so long, that they prevent the user
>from seeing the on-screen preview of the effects.
> When we are offered the opportunity to assist with the interface design,
>I believe that this must be one consideration, even if it is not the most

Yes, I believe this is *extremely* important. I really wish I could have
the luxury of doing some of my own research into these issues, because
there seems to be a tendency to misapply what research we've got.

Daniel points to two ideas that play into this equation.

1) Spatial context (both for the topic being studied, which is spatial; and
for how that topic must be presented, in a spatial context of its own,
i.e., screen or page of instructional material).

2) Significance (issues of lists, menus, etc. all are inherently
hierarchical, therefore, efficient instruction can usually be achieved by
guaranteeing that users/students grasp the upper level(s) of whatever
hierarchical structure we're presenting -- dialog box, menu, list, window,
etc. -- because it's the healthiness of the connective tissue of the
information that makes it easier to use, not its "quantity", whatever that

And also on Tue, 11 May 1999, Paul Nagai said:

>The experiment you describe does not test the experimental (psychological
>perception/cognition) definition of "short term memory" and, so, does not
>refute Miller or those who misapply his research. The mnemonic techniques
>you describe increase subjects' abilities to quickly and powerfully encode
>information into long term memory, as defined by research psychologists.
>(Or, as I used to refer to it while cramming for tests, mid-term memory. :)

mid-term memory !!!!!! (ROFL)

Yeah, I don't tend to think in terms of short vs. long, because I'm
suspicious that it's nowhere near applicable or useful enough to help us
Write Different. Besides, I'm not sure we as technical writers care about
short-term memory, to which the Miller research was apparently restricted,
*unless* it impacts usability and efficiency. As a side issue, does a
written test on how well someone can *remember* an interface test the same
thing as a performance test? What will the correlation be? In my own
experience, I have no trouble flying through lots of different programs,
though I sometimes hit the menu item I want only on the second try.

My experiment, by the way, is not at all mnemonic, more like geographic if
anything. It seems to me that well presented tech writing/training whatever
is bound to employ a whole panoply of techniques, some of which are
explicitly mnemonic (Press Ctrl C to Copy) and some of which are explicity
spatial (You can always click a close box to close a Mac window, the box is
always in the upper left corner, etc.).

As Paul implied, the key to memory is in the encoding :-)



David Cramer, Process Innovation Evangelist 87-1313 Border Street
PBSC Computer Training Centres (an IBM company) Winnipeg MB R3H 0X4
Corporate Office Research & Development Canada

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