Usability 101: Memorability

Having covered learnability and efficiency as the first two elements of usability, it is now time to turn to memorability.

What is memorability?

The concept of memorability, within the usability context, is that a user can leave a program and, when he or she returns to it, remember how to do things in it. How many times have we all gone through a training exercise with someone who knew the system only to come back to it and be completely confused? This is the issue that memorability tries to address.

Why is memorability important?

Memorability is important largely because users may not be using your application all the time. In some cases, they might get some training on it, then go off on vacation, then come back and be too swamped with other things to use your piece of software. There are a variety of reasons for which a user may not be using a piece of software for an extended period of time. When they come back to it, though, you need to make sure that they remember how to use it. In some ways, memorability can be tied to learnability in that it works in the dark recesses of our brains, with cues reminding a user how to use a particular function. Most users will probably not be interested in spending a lot of time learning the system unless they get more out of it. As a result, you need to get the basic stuff to be intuitive.

This is a challenge unto itself as intuitive behavior is not something that is easy to figure out. For example, if you are a Unix geek, opening up a shell window and doing a lot of things at the command prompt seems intuitive. If you are someone who is still new to computers, it is complicated.

As a result, you will find that some of the memorable things are usually due to one or two factors:

  • An action from the user had a reaction that the user did not necessarily expect. If that reaction left the user with a good feeling, he or she will remember it. The opposite is true too. This is similar to putting one’s hand into a fire: you may do it a first time and get burned; The next time you see an open flame, you’re not going to put your hand on it (unless you want to get burned). In that case, the action caused a reaction that people remember.
  • Some symbol, icon, or other visual presentation type that allows the user to make a free association with the task at hand. For example, the “Home” icon on most browser is a little house. The reason for this is that people assume that this house is their home. Thus the home concept is communicated to them via a visual cue.

Testing for memorability

One of the challenge on OSS development is that most of the development generally happens without user input. In order to establish memorability, user input is needed. The only way to measure how memorable a system can be is to sit a regular user down in front of the system a few times. The first time, the user will get an idea as to how the system works and complete a set of established tasks.

After that first session, continue coding but do not change the interface (unless something glaringly obvious was shown to you by the user in terms of not working). A few days later, sit the same user down in front of the system and ask him/her to complete the same set of tasks, this time without your assistance. If the user is fumbling around, trying to figure out how to move forward on a task, you have a memorability problem: the user is not remembering how to do a task. After that observation cycle, talk to the user about the specific task on which he/she stumbled. From there, you might be able to guess what would make things more memorable.

However, how one user remembers things is not enough to create a system that is memorable to all. As a result, using the same user over and over again will work great for that one user but may get further and further from making the system memorable for other users. As a result, you will have to run through the set of tasks quite a few times before you get a good handle on what most users will remember.

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