By Kirk St.Amant | STC Fellow
This column examines how cognitive factors can affect technical communication and design processes. Email the editor at email@example.com.
It’s happened to all of us: You walk into a room and forget why you are there. It can be frustrating, and it’s much more common than you might think. These situations reflect how our brains process information—something with implications for the usability of designs.
When we enter a space, we try to determine where we are, what we will do there, and what we can use to accomplish that objective. Achieving these goals involves the mental models we use to identify our location.
The process works like this: we have a mental picture—a “prototype of place”—that we associate with specific spaces. For example, when you hear “doctor’s office,” a picture comes to mind. When you hear “classroom,” a different mental image appears. The idea is that we have different mental visual models we use to identify specific spaces. When we enter a new place, we attempt to match it to the mental models we have for different settings. Specifically, we scan the area to see how closely its features compare to those of the mental models we have for settings. The more closely the design of a space matches a given mental model, the more readily we can identify where we are.
Spaces and Actions
Once we know where we are, a separate mental process begins, one that tells us what we do in this space and what we can use to perform those activities.
These processes happen reflexively and are why we seem to know what to do in familiar spaces. They also explain why we feel disoriented when we can’t identify where we are.
These prototypes of place are not innate; we learn them via repeated exposure over time. The more often I see a classroom as a place containing certain things (for example, desks and a chalkboard or whiteboard) organized in a particular way (for example, a chalkboard or whiteboard at the front of the room), the more my prototype of place for “classroom” associates those features with identifying that space. This is why we seem to act instinctively in spaces we know well but are often hesitant to act in new environments.
These same processes are key to effective interface design.
Interfaces and Usability
An interface is a virtual space. We identify “where” in a program we are based on the features on a screen. For example, if we are at the login screen of a program, we expect that interface to contain certain features—such as, a prompt for “username” and another for “password”—and be organized in a particular way—like the “username” prompt appearing above the “password” prompt.
These factors help us to identify where we are (login section of program), what to do there (enter username and password), and what to use (assigned username and password for that program). This is why we are able to log in to a variety of systems without needing to think about it. If we design virtual spaces to mirror what individuals expect them to look like, then they are easier to use.
But there is a catch to all of this.
Doorways and Defaults
When we enter a space, we establish where we are and how to act. This requires us to recognize and remember where we are to keep our actions consistent and continuous. When we move to a new space, the brain needs to determine our new location and establish what to do there. Every time you enter a new space, however, your mind clears itself to establish your location and determine how to act there. This factor means moving from one space to another breaks the identification-action chain created by prototypes of place and requires us to “start over” again.
Doorways seem to cause this process. When you pass through a doorway—or an identifiable threshold marking the end of one space and the beginning of another—your mind initiates this “clear all” reflex, and you need to start the identification-action process over again. This is the “doorway effect” that causes many of us to forget what we were doing when we enter a new room. It also has implications for usable interface design.
Doorways and Designs
When we move from one screen in a computer program to another, we’re moving through virtual spaces. Our journey through a computer program, therefore, could initiate the doorway effect and leave us wondering where we are and what we are doing when using software applications.
With these virtual spaces, it is not an actual doorway that initiates the effect: it is the design of the interface. If the configuration of the screen shifts or is associated with some visual change (for example, it goes black when transitioning from one screen to the next), the doorway effect could be initiated. This factor could affect how easily individuals use items based on how quickly they can orient themselves in a new digital space.
How can we avoid this factor? First, keep the design of the interface as consistent as possible when moving from screen to screen in a system. The more a new screen looks like a preceding one, the less likely individuals are to view it as a new space or to note a transition (in virtual spaces) has occurred. Next, mitigate or eliminate visual cues that could indicate moving through different digital spaces. This could be as simple as minimizing the time it takes for a new page to load to avoiding “transitional” effects (for example, an hourglass icon against a blank screen to indicate “wait for new screen”).
That’s not to say always avoid such designs, but rather to use them conscientiously. They can be essential to making users aware of key transitions and to making essential re-orientations. Such transitions mid-process, however, could cause problems. Specifically, they could prompt users to forget what they are doing mid-process, and that factor could affect the success and satisfaction of the user’s experiences.
The mind is a complex data processor. The better we understand its workings, the more effectively we can design to match its operations. By understanding how our minds process space, we can create designs that enhance the user experience—whether it is in physical or virtual spaces.
Brenner, Charles B., and Jeffrey M. Zacks. “Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget.” Scientific American. 13 December 2011. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/.
Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Penguin: New York, NY, 2014.
St.Amant, Kirk. “Reflexes, Reactions, and Usability: Examining How Prototypes of Place Can Enhance UXD Practices.” Communication Design Quarterly, 6.1 (2018): 45–53.