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Prospective Memory and UX
The science behind remembering to remember
Prospective memory is the ability to remember to perform an intended action at a specific time or in a specific situation in the future. It is a crucial aspect of daily life, allowing individuals to remember to carry out important tasks such as attending a meeting or taking medication at the right time. Prospective memory has been the subject of extensive research in the field of psychology, providing insights into the cognitive processes involved in planning, goal setting, and decision-making. Fun fact; prospective memory was also the topic of my MSc dissertation and one of my first publications.
A quick introduction to Prospective Memory
Psychologists have identified two main types of prospective memory: event-based and time-based. Event-based prospective memory involves remembering to perform an action in response to a specific cue or event, such as remembering to call a friend when seeing them at a social event. Time-based prospective memory involves remembering to perform an action at a specific time, such as taking medication at a scheduled time of day.
Failures of prospective memory are often attributed to attentional failures or cognitive load, whereby individuals become distracted by other tasks or information and fail to remember to perform the intended action at the appropriate time. This can be particularly challenging in modern, fast-paced environments where individuals are constantly bombarded with distractions and interruptions.
Several factors can influence prospective memory, including age, motivation, and the complexity of the intended action. For instance, older adults may experience more difficulties in event-based prospective memory due to declines in cognitive abilities such as attention and working memory. Additionally, motivation has been found to play a significant role in prospective memory performance, with individuals who are more motivated to perform a task exhibiting better prospective memory. Finally, the complexity of the intended action can also affect prospective memory performance, with more complex actions being more difficult to remember.
In everyday life, examples of prospective memory include remembering to pick up groceries on the way home from work, taking medication at a specific time of day, and remembering to pay bills on time. While these may seem like small tasks, they can have significant consequences if forgotten, leading to missed appointments, late fees, or health issues.
Prospective Memory and User Experience
Understanding prospective memory can have implications for UX design. By considering the cognitive processes involved in prospective memory, we can create interfaces that are more intuitive, user-friendly, and engaging. Here are some examples of how this can be done:
Visual Cues and Reminders: Incorporating visual cues or reminders into an interface can help users remember to perform a specific action at a later time. For instance, a to-do list app could use colour-coded tags or icons to highlight important tasks, or display reminders at a specific time to prompt users to complete a task. Studies have shown that visual cues, especially attractive or with emotional value, can significantly improve prospective memory performance (e.g, Somerville et al., 1983).
Gamification: Incorporating elements of game design, such as points, badges, or rewards, can increase motivation and engagement, leading to better prospective memory performance. For example, a fitness app could reward users for completing a certain number of workouts in a week, increasing their motivation to remember to exercise. Research has shown that prospective memory is better when the intention has a high reward assigned to it.
Habit Formation: Designing interfaces that encourage habit formation can leverage the power of prospective memory to create lasting behaviour change. For instance, a meditation app could encourage users to practice at the same time each day, helping to establish a daily habit. Research has shown that habit formation can improve prospective memory performance (Burkard et al., 2014)
Contextual Design: Designing interfaces that take into account the context in which an action needs to be performed can improve prospective memory performance. For instance, a navigation app could prompt users to remember to turn left at a specific intersection, rather than simply providing a list of directions. Research has shown that context-based cues can improve prospective memory performance (Smith et al., 2016).
Enable offloading: Cognitive offloading refers to the process of using external aids, such as a notebook, calendar, or smartphone, to supplement or replace internal cognitive processes. Essentially, it involves delegating mental tasks to external devices to reduce the cognitive load on the brain. Cognitive offloading can be particularly beneficial for prospective memory, as it allows individuals to externalise some of the demands on their working memory and attention, freeing up mental resources for other tasks. For example, allowing users to set reminders flag or bookmark reduces users’ cognitive load and helps them remember act upon delayed intentions.
Prevent user errors: Research suggests that people who think that they have a good memory are less likely to set reminders and mostly rely on their memory. This often results in prospective memory failures. We can use design to prevent this by prompting users to set reminders for important events.
Know your user: Prospective memory is affected by a number of factors such as age or certain conditions. The amount and type of support we need to provide depends on this. The best way to do this is by — you guessed it! — doing user research and understanding the people who use your product.
In conclusion, prospective memory is a vital cognitive process that plays a significant role in daily life. Understanding the factors that influence prospective memory can help us design better products and experiences.