Did you move your user’s cheese? All you need to know about ‘Positional Memory’

Do you ever move your apps around on your smartphone? Or do you ever move furniture around in your living room? I didn’t think so! This post explores why things like to stay in place and why keeping them in place is so important for good user experience.

The Cheese Test

Try moving your apps around on your phone or icons on your desktop (especially if you are comfortable with them in a certain place). If you don’t mind, you can handle having your cheese moved (to borrow from that book that was the rage years ago). Most users don’t want their cheese moved. Ever. That’s why defaults rule in interface design strategy.

What is ‘Positional Memory’?

We remember things spatially. We largely rely on combinations of visual and tactile ways of remembering (in Mobile UX especially). Spatial orientation and organization are hard wired. We even spatialize sound (I did an entire degree on auditory spatial cognition) and learned that we are like owls, we have 3D hearing! In interface design, moving around navigation for example, is equivalent to your phone ringing from all four corners of a room instead of over in the corner in your bag.

Positional memory describes how your users learn where something is located. It’s a design consideration that says: Think about how close you put one button next to another.

If you have Submit and Cancel one screen:

And then Cancel and Submit on another (or worse toggle the positional memory of a call to action where a “destructive” action like “Clear” goes), you can really confuse users and provoke error.

Users move in a hurry and they unconsciously scan, navigate and make choices. Anything that slows them down (especially mobile user experience) will disrupt positional memory, causing users to remember more. Part of that more is the new rule that says “this can now be found over here (instead)”.

I am reminded of consistency of placement of app icons when it comes to re-organizing apps on my iPhone. If you want to experience positional memory, move your apps around and see what happens after a few days.

Why positioning matters in a UI?

Consistency reinforces learning and familiarity. Familiarity increases discoverability (how we find stuff) and facilitates ease of learning. Positional memory also explains why customization has a limited degree of usability on the web. Customization is a great idea but users seldom do it, even though it is in their interest. Customization tells the brain of a user, “now we’re moving the cheese from here to there- so remember that, it will be good”.

What should you typically consider when checking for violations of positional memory in your UI?

  • Style Guide: Are there UI Style Guide considerations?
  • Task support: What’s the fastest way to help users do what they need?
  • Breaking rules: Are inconsistencies deliberate, justified and have they been tested with users?
  • Customization: Will the UI work without the need to customize or move stuff around?
  • Standards to follow: What standards exist either on the Web, in Mobile UX or in the users mind (mental model or prior expectations)?

What have been your personal experiences with maintaining positional memory in your UI? Please comment below.

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