Using Cognitive Psychology To Improve Design and Productivity (🍕#5)

The science behind the number 7±2 in a world with exponentially increasing information.

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Let’s start with a quick thought experiment.

Imagine I showed you a list of 20 words, gave you about 60 seconds to memorize them, and then asked you to write down as many as you can remember.

How many do you think you’d write down?

If you’re like me, frequently overestimating your own abilities, then you probably guessed a lot higher than hundreds of experiments in cognitive psychology have proven we’re capable of.

We’re a pretty advanced species, yet from that list, you, me, and the majority of other humans will have remembered only 5 to 9 of the words — or, 7 plus or minus 2. This experiment may just be a simple illustration of the limitation of human memory. But in practice, it has complex implications.

As a product manager, designer, and someone who champions productivity as a driver for fulfillment, I was curious to investigate how anyone can use this cognitive phenomenon as an advantage in design and general performance.

The magic number 7

It’s remarkable that the average human mind can only hold between 5–9 pieces (or ‘bits’) of information in our short-term memory when completing a task that requires cognitive effort. We can send people to the moon, innovate around nearly any problem set, and philosophize the meaning of life. Yet, remembering a cell phone number would be pushing your cognitive capacity.

This was made evident in now one of the most cited papers in psychology by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”, which, in a nugget, reveals the universal law of limitation, which states that you’re only able to hold 5 to 9 bits in your working memory at a given time.

Countless times a day, all of us are constantly performing some task while being bombarded with other stimuli. Even browsing through Netflix in search of your next binge is a cognitive task — and an important one. While 7 may seem shockingly small, with the right conditions, these bits can become significantly larger and more complex.

How to make that 7 exponential

Remember this number and letter sequence, “9172947139” and “ieltivoens”

To make that more digestible, let’s write them as “(917) 294–7139” and “television”.

Much easier to recall, right? That’s exactly what the “chunking” principle is. A method that helps us assemble various bits of information, that standing alone makes no sense, into a single cohesive whole. Suddenly that 7 becomes 1, and we can start to see how it’s possible we remember so much.

The human brain is wired to see structure, logic, and pattern as this helps us make sense of the abstract world around us. We love mental shortcuts. 

What happened when you saw that sequence of numbers structured slightly differently, was that a cognitive process kicked in where your mind leapt from comprehending all of the elements as individual and unrelated components, to seeing the entire sequence as a whole. This cognitive process is widely identified in psychology as one of the Gestalt Laws of The Organizational Perception of Scenes.

This essentially means that the key to seeing, comprehending and remembering more, is to trick our minds into perceiving less.

Theoretically, this makes sense, but how does “chunking” play a critical role in every single good product we use, and in the organization of our daily lives?

Applying this rule to design

Great product designers understand the influential role that psychology plays in our visual perception of information.

Practically, that means using “chunking” and minimalism when structuring the information and elements on a page or interface. This is known as information architecture — the science and art behind the usability of a product.

A software product might be fantastic, but if you land on their website and (1) it looks scrappy, and (2) you don’t understand how to use it, then that value won’t be realized.

You might think that a great product speaks for itself above poor design, but humans like things that are aesthetically pleasing because it’s aligned with how they perceive themselves. The product is an extension of them. Likewise, a study has shown that 94% of people rejected a website because of design issues.

We live in a world with exponentially increasing amounts of information and exponentially decreasing human attention. As a product designer, you have to organize information in a way that reduces cognitive overload, and according to Forbes, for every dollar that you invest in this design, it will bring you $100 in return revenue.

When designing a product, you have to understand what the job to be done is. Why is the customer here, and what are they “hiring” your product to achieve? When I’m bored, I want to be entertained so I no longer roam around my house opening the fridge door when I’ve just eaten. I, therefore, open up Netflix to satisfy this need.

A designer at Netflix understands this, and their job is to make sure the goal completion rate from me (or more importantly, from first-time users) landing on the site to binge-watching four seasons of Money Heist is as high as possible. This happens when the product is intuitive enough to form habitual behavior. And the product is intuitive enough when I understand where to click without feeling overwhelmed by all the features.

As a designer, it’s implemented into your lean design methodologies and UX/UI process by ensuring that the information and layout are optimized around logical groups of ideally 5 bits of information.

Miller’s Law and the principle of “chunking” helps me see what I need, when I need it, based on where I am on the product. Much like a product can be designed around cognitive optimization, so can the organizational structure of our lives.

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And to productivity and performance

I used to be obsessed with to-do-lists, lengthy weekly agendas, and writing out all my goals.

Armed with an understanding of this magical number 7±2 and general weakness in our cognitive capacity, it makes total sense that I used to procrastinate so much.

I was overwhelmed with too many bits of information! When lists grow too large, we find it hard to mentally map them and take deliberate action. We’re more likely to achieve an end-result if the path to get there seems more feasible. Tell someone to write a novel and they may never start, but ask them to write for just 30 minutes a day, and at minimum, progress will be made.

With information growing rapidly all around us, it’s critical that we practice the ability of simplifying and organizing it in some way if we wish to be productive. We can only process so much, so do yourself a favor and eliminate the distractions, giving yourself a better chance of working inflow, “a state of concentration or ‘absorption’ with a specific task we ultimately find rewarding, pleasurable, and fulfilling”

Could you ever imagine that 20% is better than 80%? It seems counterintuitive — but look at the venture capital model, where just a fraction of all the portfolio companies in a fund will account for a bulk of the combined market capitalization.

The evidence behind the Pareto Principle, or the law of the vital few, emphasizes that 80% of the results we see can come from just 20% of our efforts. And that 20% needs to be the vital “chunks” of information we expose ourselves too.

What now

uscfo.

Sorry, I mean focus!

Or more aptly, create an environment for focus.

Make to-do-lists that focus on only 5 priorities at a time. Delete unnecessary apps/software tools you use. Turn off distracting notifications.

Remember, as a rule of thumb, the sweet spot is 5.

Every weeks, I share my experiences, insights and perspectives on product, growth, people, and anything else that I’ve found helps have a happier and more meaningful career in product management.
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