Recognition vs. Recall and Why Memory Will Fail Your Users

Information architects at 2Plus2 explain how usability and UX require recognition over recall in employee intranet design.

By Cathy Dew

Ever been late to an appointment because you just couldn’t remember where you left your car keys? Ever run into an old school chum at a party only to find yourself unable to put a name with that face? Have you gotten locked out of your online banking app — for what seemed like the millionth time — because, once again, you entered three wrong passwords in a row?

We all suffer from frustrating memory lapses from time to time. And while experts say there are ways to bolster memory — including exercise, meditation and (my favorite) an uptake in berry consumption — for my part I’ve yet to run across anything that really works.

I’ve met memory specialists who recommend that you drink more coffee to wake up your brain cells. Some say if you draw a detailed map of the neighborhood you grew up in, you will supercharge your synapses. While some suggestions to recharge memory can be a bit strange — like moving your eyes side to side while clenching your fists — and others are patently obvious, like getting more sleep, they all are designed to help cure what, for us humans, is a universal difficulty: we have a tendency to forget.

How Memory Lapses Inform Intranet Design

So how can this universal tendency toward forgetfulness inform the information architect’s approach to intranet design?

If you want to create an employee intranet that is easy to access, a breeze to navigate, and takes user personas into account in its design elements and functions, you’d better focus less on requiring straight-up recall from the user and, instead, offer more opportunities for memory-prompted recognition.

Recall vs. Recognition

Finding those car keys, remembering that old schoolmate’s name, and logging onto that banking app were all dependent upon your less-than-stellar powers of recall. You weren’t given a lot of clues to help you accomplish what you are setting out to do. Like all tasks dependent on recall, you were basically left to sink or swim. You remember or you don’t.

Recognition, on the other hand, allows you to unconsciously associate an event or physical object with one you had previously experienced or encountered. Instead of having to retrieve the information unaided, you get clues to match up with your memory. Picture a log in system that prompts you to remember your user name and password with a recognizable image, or a drop-down menu of all the places you can navigate to find the information you need. Both tap into your powers of recognition.

If recall is a fill in the blank test, then recognition is a multiple choice exam, except there is only one good answer and nobody is trying to trick you into following some red herring (sorry, I was having graduate school flashbacks).

Most of the time when accessing information on a site or app, we use a combination of recall and recognition. For instance, if you want to return to a website page you have visited before but can’t recall the exact URL, you might try entering some keywords that got you to the site the last time. By recalling how you searched and then being given a choice of sites that appear with that same search methodology, you will be provided with a list of possible sites. Chances are you will use your powers of recognition to get you back to the site your were searching for.

Know Your Users, Inside and Out

Exactly how, where and when to incorporate recognition and recall into your intranet design is going to depend on knowing the personas of the people you are designing for. Designing around your user is your key to providing a tool that engenders great employee engagement.

It is important to understand your users’ level of technical proficiency as well as how much time you expect they will invest in learning new things.

The technical abilities of your employees could run the gamut from novice computer users to IT gurus. Even if you have users with average or higher technical skills, that doesn’t mean they are going to be able to use every aspect of the system without some form of guidance. And since you can pretty much bet that the majority of your users are not going to have a lot of time to watch video tutorials or keep referring back to a training document, understanding what is recognizable to them will go a long way to making the intranet accessible.

Applying Recognition Patterns to UX Design

Recognition engenders familiarity and familiarity encourages exploration.

When users enter a site or application, they expect to see certain features. An experienced information architect takes advantage of these recognition patterns and user associations to inform usability design. If users are able to orient to a site with ease, they are more likely to not only use the part of the site that feels familiar, but are also more likely to take the time and trouble to expand their competencies so they can take even more advantage of the tool.

So rather than go all latest bells and whistles cutting edge creative on every section of your design, stick to widely-accepted patterns that meet your users’ expectations.

Focus on using interfaces with richer contexts that promote recognition. This gives users extra help in remembering information, which will boost their confidence, enhance user experience, and encourage exploration.

How 2Plus2 Uses Recall and Recognition to Inform Great Intranet Design

The information architects at 2Plus2 know that your intranet users are coming to the site with certain skill sets, interests, and expectations. It is our job, as intranet design experts, to learn as much as possible about your employee users so we can leverage these insights to create an accessible site that invites participation by offering ease of orientation.

To learn more, give me a call at 510-652-7700 or contact us online. to set up a time to discuss your intranet needs and how we can help you reach your goals.

Cathy Dew
Cathy Dew – CEO + Information Architect
Cathy focuses the company on our mission – Real results. Every time. Information architect and strategist, Cathy is passionate about making software work well – the function, the feel, the result.