Clicks & Notes

05 April 2005

Working Memory and (So-Called) Magic Numbers

Spotted this quick news release via kottke (a while back now – this blog post has been sitting in my “Drafts” folder for a couple weeks):

EurekAlert! - How much can your mind keep track of?

  • new research has shown that, when someone is trying to solve a new problem or do an unfamiliar task, the number of individual variables that they can handle is relatively small; four variables are difficult, while five are nearly impossible
  • when problems are more familiar, people are able to break a larger number of variables into more manageable chunks, treating several variables as a single chunk

Which, of course reminded me of this (in)famous article:

The Psychological Review - The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information by George A. Miller (1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97)

Everybody knows that there is a finite span of immediate memory and that for a lot of different kinds of test materials this span is about seven items in length. I have just shown you that there is a span of absolute judgment that can distinguish about seven categories and that there is a span of attention that will encompass about six objects at a glance.

Which has since been repudiated in its applicability to interface design:

Internetworking - Three Numbers That (Should) Have Nothing To Do With User Interface Design

(E)ven when it is cited correctly, Miller’s work is discussed as if the scientific understanding of short-term memory had not advanced at all in the last half century… More contemporary experiments show that an individual’s capacity for short-term remembering depends heavily on the nature of what is being remembered.

At best, Miller’s 7 ± 2 figure applies to immediate serial recall for a sequence of familiar, easy-to-pronounce, unrelated, verbal stimuli presented auditorily with no distracting sounds within earshot.

Net Return - Seven, plus or minus two. What’s the relevance for web design? (PDF, 90 kb)

  • it is information scent, and not a user’s ability to remember a list of items, that determines their success in using a navigation structure that presents a large number of links
  • information scent arises from wording used in labels and links that clearly conveys to the user what sort of information can be found if they click link

See also:

Also picking up on the news release from EurekAlert!:

beyond bullets - 7 x 20 = Overload

Many people justify 7 bullet points per slide by citing the George Miller article, but what’s always missing in the arithmetic is the total number of bullet points across all of the slides; e.g., 7 bullets per slide times 20 slides equals 140 bullet points.

In turn, beyond bullets links to these two items:

⇒ Filed under:  by jen @ 10:30 pm

20 March 2005

More Email Tips

HBS Working Knowledge - Tips for Mastering E-mail Overload

Lengthy checklist of tips, including several ways for you to make the email that you send to other people more clear and effective.

Standout bits:

  • “Use a subject line to summarize, not describe” – put another way, the subject line should be content, and not metadata
  • “Give your reader full context at the start of your message” – don’t make the reader hunt through a thread of replies to figure out what you’re talking about
  • “When you copy lots of people (a heinous practices that should be used sparingly), mark out why each person should care” – preface the message with action items for each recipient
  • “Separate topics into separate e-mails… up to a point” – important when some topics can be responded to right away, and others cannot; also good for separate the controversial from the mundane; on the other hand, don’t overload someone with a bunch of tiny messages

See also this previous post: Managing Email

Update 22 March 2005: A few related blog posts…

Slacker Manager - Subject line tricks and Slacker Manager - Subject line tricks redux

  • suggestions for useful abbreviations that you can include in the subject lines of your emails

Fast Company - Intel’s Got (Too Much) Mail

  • an article dating from 2001, which notes:

    Employees of the semiconductor giant collectively average 3 million emails a day… with some people racking up as many as 300 messages in one 24-hour period.

  • includes a list of Intel’s “10 Commandments of Email”
⇒ Filed under:  by jen @ 11:49 am

PowerPoint and the First Five Slides

beyond bullets - The First Five Slides

  • Cliff Atkinson writes the following about giving presentations:

    If you don’t fully engage your audience within the first five slides of your presentation, you might as well pack up your projector and go home. No matter what your topic, every audience has a set of questions they are silently asking, and it’s up to you to answer them quickly or risk losing the privilege of their attention.

  • rather than being lists of bullets points, the slides should form the foundation for an engaging and persuasive story
  • see also: beyond bullets - The 5-Minute Storyboard for a storyboard template for PowerPoint
⇒ Filed under:  by jen @ 10:14 am

17 February 2005

Managing Email

Some links that I’ve come across in the last while…

43 Folders - Five fast email productivity tips

  • simple and to the point:
    • Shut off auto-check
    • Pick off easy ones – if you can respond right away in one or two lines, do it now
    • Write less – keep it short, quick, and to the point
    • Cheat – use templates and boilerplate responses for common inquiries
    • Be honest – if you know you’re not going to deal with an email, just get rid of it

John Porcaro: mktg@msft - Microsoft’s Email Culture

  • Porcaro talks about the high volumes of email that staff at Microsoft contend with, shares a few of his own email management tricks, including:
    • your inbox is not your to-do list
    • block out time to “process” email
    • don’t use email as your filing system
    • don’t use email as a CMS – put content that needs to be shared in a place accessible to all

NPR - Overcoming E-Mail Overload at Work

  • includes an audio interview with Marilyn Paul, author of It’s Hard To Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys, who offers several tips for dealing with email effectively at work, including:
    • Meet as a team to review e-mail use. Identify what works, what doesn’t, and why.
    • Don’t deliver bad news in an e-mail message.
    • After two rounds of problem-solving on e-mail, pick up the phone.
    • If you can’t answer a request immediately, let the other party know when you can respond, or if you can’t.
  • there’s also an excerpt of Paul’s book available here (PDF, 122 kb)

Good Experience - Managing Incoming E-mail: What Every User Needs to Know (PDF, 317 kb)

Here is how to manage incoming e-mail: Keep the inbox empty.

  • the report (which is 38 pages long) goes on to include:
    • a walkthrough on how to empty your current inbox
    • tips on how to spot spam in your inbox quickly, so that you can delete it right away
    • suggestions for setting up mail filters
    • instructions on setting up filters in Microsoft Outlook

Conversations with Dina - Spam killing Email - why can’t they learn from IM ?

  • Dina talks about using whitelist applications and has a wishlist for a permission-based contact management protocol/structure for email

BBC News - E-mail is the new database

  • obviously a lot of people could use the tips noted in the preceding articles – as the BBC reports:

    Web-based e-mail services like Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail and AOL Mail on the Web are becoming databases by default as a growing number of people use them, to store data and photos so they can retrieve them from anywhere.

Update 18 February 2005: Here’s one more… - How the big names tame e-mail

  • Email secrets of the rich and famous include:
    • don’t read it
    • get an assistant
    • use multiple email addresses
    • use a wireless solution, like a Blackberry, to handle email anytime, anywhere
  • (via Brain Food Blog)

Update #2, 18 February 2005: This just in…

43 Folders - Quick tips on processing your email inbox

  • Merlin Mann follows up on his five email productivity tips (see above) with these notes:

    Processing determines as quickly as possible what, if anything, to do with each piece (in ascending order of urgency and importance):

    • delete it
    • archive it
    • defer it for later response
    • generate an action from it
    • respond to it immediately (if it—literally—will take less than 2 minutes or is so Earth-shattering that it just can’t wait)
⇒ Filed under:  by jen @ 11:35 pm

07 February 2005

Creativity and Brainstorming Links

Some notes on good ways to generate ideas…

UIWEB.COM - How to run a brainstorming meeting:

  • Have a specific purpose
  • Know what you want, and what you plan to do with it
  • Know how to facilitate
  • Put the focus on the list
  • Comfort is key
  • Establish the ground rules
  • Postpone criticism

(via Ed Taekema - Road Warrior Collaboration)

Innovation Weblog - Springboard thinking:

“springboarding is turbocharged brainstorming.”

Springboards can include:

  • Redefinitions of the task headline
  • Wishes
  • Starting ideas
  • Challenges to constraints on the problem
  • Random thoughts
  • Feelings or gut level reactions
  • Apparently conflicting points of view

(via Fast Company Now)

mezzoblue - Getting Unstuck: Four tips for getting yourself out of a design jam:

  • Don’t look at another designer’s work if at all possible.
  • Throw a whole bunch of ideas on a canvas and see what sticks.
  • Plan, or improvise. Either way, do your DD (’DD’ is due diligence – things that must happen before a design begins, such as gathering materials like existing branding, project objectives, content, and anything else available)
  • If it’s not working, throw it out.

And where there’s a right way, there’s a wrong way…

Fast Company Now - Ways to Murder an Idea, including:

  • See it coming and quickly change the subject.
  • Ignore it.
  • Feign interest but do nothing about it.
  • Laugh it off.
  • Praise it to death. By the time you have expounded its merits for five minutes everyone else will hate it.
  • Say, “Oh, we’ve tried that before"–even if it’s not true.
  • Come up with a competitive idea.
  • Stall it with any of the following: “We’re not ready for it yet, but in the fullness of time…” – “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, but right now…” – “Let’s wait until the new organization has settled down…”

InnovationTools - Six great ways to ruin a brainstorming session

  • Having no clear objectives
  • Too homogenous of a group
  • Letting the boss act as facilitator
  • Allowing early criticism
  • Settling for a few ideas
  • No closure or follow through

Lastly, Dave Pollard has two very lengthy posts on the Creative Problem-Solving Process and where people get their ideas from.

⇒ Filed under:  by jen @ 7:22 pm

© Jennifer Vetterli, 2005