The Insider’s Guide to Designing User-Centered Digital Products: Recognition rather than recall

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By Maria Victoria De Santiago

April 11, 2023

Arionkoder specializes in designing digital products that not only perform efficiently but also offer an effortless and delightful user experience. We achieve this goal by implementing Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics. To read our overview, click here. We invite you to join us as we delve into the sixth heuristic – Recognition rather than recall.

You’ve probably experienced -at least once- a situation where you put your memory to the test. Let’s say you’re discussing movies with your friends and you want to recommend “Thor: Love and Thunder”. They’re not sure what movie you’re talking about, so you try to mention some cast members, but blank out on their names. However, if you saw a picture of them, you’d undoubtedly recognize them!

This is a great example of some of the many ways our memories work. When you try to remember the name of an actor, you’re recalling that piece of information. But when you see a picture and identify them, you’re using recognition as a tool. They are different processes, and one of them -recognition- is easier for the human mind than the other. That’s why Nielsen’s 6th law states that:

“Showing users things they can recognize improves usability over needing to recall items from scratch because the extra context helps users retrieve information from memory.”

In our daily life, we use both recognition and recall to retrieve information for our tasks. We go from the information that’s easier to recall and then move on to narrow our choices to go to precisely the place we want to reach. Imagine you want to visit a retailer’s website. You know what they sell, but can’t remember their name. So you go to a search engine and look up “Funko Pops Harry Potter Boston”, and narrow your search from there through the recognition of the names that will pop up.

In User Interfaces, users will be exposed to recall very often. A classic example is a login screen: users need to remember their username or email and password with virtually no cues to help them retrieve that information. To counter this, some people write their login details on a piece of paper, others reuse their login information all around the web and others yet might rely on the “Recover password” button.

Recognition in User Interfaces is even more important. A typical example is a menu system, where the available commands for a digital product are listed and the user can choose the one that better serves their goals.

How to promote recognition in UI?

Recognition is promoted when we make information and interface functions visible and accessible. This applies to both the interface and the content of a product: let’s see some examples of our work:

  • Showing previously visited content and search history. This helps users resume incomplete tasks that they might not remember by providing a way to retrace their steps.
Showing a list of the latest content helps the user avoid having to memorize it.
The timeline helps the user to recognize the sequence of events rather than having to recall their order.
  • Including intuitive elements in the UI. This aids users in reducing the number of cues they need to identify something.
The home icon is an icon that any user can easily recognize.
  • Exposing users to elements of the product. Some mobile apps, for example, start with tutorials that explain how the apps are designed to be used. But because they can be generic and overwhelming, it’s preferable to add tips that relate to the page the user is visiting.

Information-rich contexts help our users recognize elements that they can use to reach their goals, streamlining their experience with our digital product and creating a sense of confidence and trust in the brand. 

Stay tuned for an exploration of Nielsen’s seventh heuristic: Flexibility and efficiency of use, and discover how to apply it for amazing results.

At Arionkoder, we help you create innovative products that delight your users. Reach out to us today to discover everything we can accomplish together!