Intranet User Experience, Chunking, and the Magic of Seven

Employee intranets rely on a great User Experience to be successful. The Information Architects at 2Plus2 discuss how chunking information enhances UX.

By Cathy Dew

George A. Miller, one of the famed founders of cognitive psychology, first came up with the magical number seven theory in an essay he published in the mid-1950s. According to Miller’s famous essay, the human capacity to process information is limited to “the magical number seven, plus or minus two.

In other words, Miller posited, humans can only remember seven things at a time (give or take one or two things).

Conventional Wisdom and Short Term Memory

So, conventional wisdom goes, if you want to frame information to pass this universal short-term memory limitation, you had better find a way to chunk things together in a fashion that will trick the brain into processing no more than seven discrete items or concepts at a time (giving or taking one or two).

While some research conducted subsequent to Miller’s essay challenges this hard and fast rule, the experience of pretty much every experienced information architect and employee intranet designer is that human short-term memory has its limitations. Therefore, chunking information to make it readily distinguishable, as well as memorable is, indeed, the way to go.

Intranet Design Information Chunking 101

In a nutshell, chunking requires breaking information down into small, manageable units so people can process it in meaningful ways.

Knowing when and how to chunk information requires a thorough understanding of your user personas. The biggest mistake rookie intranet designers make is chunking information in a way that makes sense to them, rather than the actual user.

The Importance of Personas in Chunking

Developing employee personas and empathizing with them is the first step in understanding what information you need to present. Once you have developed a clear understanding of who your user is – including how they think and what they care about – you can start to answer the next logical questions:

  • How should the information they need and care about be presented?
  • How should it be chunked?

Recognition vs. Retention

The magical number seven notwithstanding, not every item presented on an employee intranet needs to be designed for the short-term memory of your user.

For example, a user can easily work with a global navigation menu with more than seven items. It is not required that the user remember all the navigation items; it is only important that they know what the items are when they see them. You need to worry about limiting the number of items or concepts that require recall, rather than mere recognition.

On the other hand, if you are trying to impart information via text that you want the user to retain, chunking all that info into spurts -- rather than stringing it all together in one seemingly endless stream of words, sentences and paragraphs -- will keep the reader’s attention and increase the likelihood the information will be retained.

Chunking With White Space

Ways to accomplish this are by breaking text down with:

  • Subheadings
  • Short paragraphs of text, and
  • Bullets when the information starts to seem too dense or stacked.

And be sure to incorporate plenty of white space so your user/reader knows when to take a breath, so to speak, between concepts.

2Plus2 Information Architects Are Intranet Chunking Pros

You can count on the IA experts at 2Plus2 to develop intranets that are easy on the eyes as well as on the short-term memory. Ready to take your employee intranet to the next level? Go online to schedule a free consultation with our team or call 510-652-7700 today.

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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.