You may have heard this story about an elephant:

A king brings six men into a dark building. They cannot see anything. The king says to them, "I have bought this animal from the wild lands to the East. It is called an elephant." "What is an elephant?" the men ask. The king says, "Feel the elephant and describe it to me." The man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope, the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch, the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan, the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall, and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe. "You are all correct", says the king, "You are each feeling just a part of the elephant."

The story of the elephant reminds me of the different view of design that people of different backgrounds, education, and experience have. A visual designer approaches UX design from one point of view, the interaction designer from another, and the programmer from yet another. It can be helpful to understand and even experience the part of the elephant that others are experiencing.

I'm a psychologist by training and education. So the part of the elephant I experience applies what we know about people and how we apply that to UX design. I take research and knowledge about the brain, the visual system, memory, and motivation and extrapolate UX design principles from that.

This article is a snapshot of the psychologist's view of the elephant.

1. People Don't Want to Work or Think More Than They Have To

  • People will do the least amount of work possible to get a task done.
  • It is better to show people a little bit of information and let them choose if they want more details. The fancy term for this is progressive disclosure, which I wrote a blog post about recently.
  • Instead of just describing things, show people an example.
  • Pay attention to the affordance of objects on the screen, page, or device you are designing. If something is clickable make sure it looks like it is clickable.
  • Only provide the features that people really need. Don't rely on your opinion of what you think they need; do user research to actually find out. Giving people more than they need just clutters up the experience.
  • Provide defaults. Defaults let people do less work to get the job done.

2. People Have Limitations

  • People can only look at so much information or read so much text on a screen without losing interest. Only provide the information that's needed at the moment (see progressive disclosure above).
  • Make the information easy to scan.
  • Use headers and short blocks of info or text.
  • People can't multi-task. The research is very clear on this, so don't expect them to.
  • People prefer short line lengths, but they read better with longer ones! It's a conundrum, so decide whether preference or performance is more important in your case, but know that people are going to ask for things that actually aren't best for them.

3. People Make Mistakes

  • Assume people will make mistakes. Anticipate what they will be and try to prevent them.
  • If the results of an error are severe then use a confirmation before acting on the user's action.
  • Make it easy to "undo."
  • Preventing errors from occurring is always better than helping people correct them once they occur. The best error message is no message at all.
  • If a task is error-prone, break it up into smaller chunks.
  • If the user makes and error and you can correct it, then do so and show what you did.
  • Whoever is designing the UX makes errors too, so make sure that there is time and energy for iteration, user feedback, and testing.

4. Human Memory Is Complicated

  • People reconstruct memories, which means they are always changing. You can trust what users say as the truth only a little bit. It is better to observe them in action than to take their word for it.
  • Memory is fragile. It degrades quickly and is subject to lots of errors. Don't make people remember things from one task to another or one page to another.
  • People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time. The "7 plus or minus 2" rule is an urban legend. Research shows the real number is 3-4.

5. People are Social

  • People will always try to use technology to be social. This has been true for thousands of years.
  • People look to others for guidance on what they should do, especially if they are uncertain. This is called social validation. This is why, for example, ratings and reviews are so powerful on websites.
  • If people do something together at the same time (synchronous behavior) it bonds them together—there are actually chemical reactions in the brain. Laughter also bonds people.
  • If you do a favor for me then I will feel indebted to give you a favor back (reciprocity). Research shows that if you want people to fill out a form, give them something they want and then ask for them to fill out the form, not vice versa.
  • When you watch someone do something, the same parts in your brain light up as though you were doing it yourself (called mirror neurons). We are programmed with our biology to imitate. If you want people to do something then show someone else doing it.
  • You can only have strong ties to 150 people. Strong ties are defined as ties that with people you are in close physical proximity to. But weak ties can be in the thousands and are very influential (à la Facebook).

6. Attention

  • I am beginning to think that the whole idea of attention is a key to designing an engaging UI. I'll write more in future articles about that. Grabbing and holding onto attention, and not distracting someone when they are paying attention to something, are key concerns.
  • People are programmed to pay attention to anything that is different or novel. If you make something different it will stand out.
  • Having said that, people can actually miss changes in their visual field. This is called change blindness. There are some quite humorous videos of people who start talking to someone on the street (who has stopped them and asked for directions) and then don't notice when the person actually changes!
  • You can use the senses to grab attention. Bright colors, large fonts, beeps, and tones will capture attention.
  • People are easily distracted. If you don't want them to be distracted, don't flash things on the page or start videos playing. If, however, you do want to grab their attention, do those things.

7. People Crave Information

  • Dopamine is a chemical that makes people seek… food, sex, information. Learning is dopaminergic—we can't help but want more information.
  • People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better.
  • People need feedback. The computer doesn't need to tell the human that it is loading the file. The human needs to know what is going on.

8. Unconscious Processing

  • Most mental processing occurs unconsciously.
  • If you can get people to commit to a small action (sign up for a free membership), then it is much more likely that they will later commit to a larger action (e.g., upgrade to a premium account).
  • The old brain makes or at least has input into most of our decisions. The old brain cares about survival and propagation: food, sex, and danger. That is why these three messages can grab our attention.
  • The emotional brain is affected by pictures, especially pictures of people, as well as by stories. The emotional brain has a huge impact on our decisions.
  • People's behavior is greatly affected by factors that they aren't even aware of. The words "retired", "Florida," and "tired" can make even young people walk down the hall slower (called framing).
  • Both the old brain and the emotional brain act without our conscious knowledge. We will always ascribe a rational, conscious-brain reason to our decision, but it's never the whole reason why we take an action, and often the rational reason isn't even part of the reason.

9. People Create Mental Models

  • People always have a mental model in place about a certain object or task (paying my bills, reading a book, using a remote control).
  • The mental model that people have about a particular task may make it easy or hard to use an interface that you have designed.
  • In order to create a positive UX, you can either match the conceptual model of your product or website to the users' mental model, or you can figure out how to "teach" the users to have a different mental model.
  • Metaphors help users "get" a conceptual model. For example, "This is just like reading a book."
  • The most important reason to do user research is to get information about users' mental models.

10. Visual System

  • If pages are cluttered people can't find information. Use grouping to help focus where the eye should look.
  • Things that are close together are believed to "go" together.
  • Make fonts large enough. Use fonts that are not too decorative so they are easy to read.
  • Research shows that people use peripheral vision to get the "gist" of what they are looking at. Eye tracking studies are interesting, but just because someone is looking at something straight on doesn't mean they are paying attention to it.
  • The hardest colors to look at together are red and blue. Try to avoid red text on a blue background or vice versa.
  • People can recognize objects on a screen best when they are slightly angled and have the perspective of being slightly above (canonical perspective).
  • Color can be used to show whether things go together. Be sure to use another way to show the same info since some people are colorblind.

So, what's your description of the elephant?

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I think the best write-up summarizing the research on memory being limited to 3-4 items is a research paper by Nelson Cowan: "Working Memory Capacity Limits" in
Current Directions in Psychological Science (2009). Alan Baddeley also did many studies on memory, and he concluded the same 3-4 number, but Nelson Cowan's work is the most recent.

There is a lot of of "It Depends" here when we talk about how many things people can remember, and perhaps we shouldn't even try to have some over arching number.

But if you want to put out a general number, but there is much more evidence in the research for the number 3-4 than there is for 7 plus or minus 2.

I know, it's hard to let go of in-grained urban legends!

So maybe I'll write another post and go into all the details of when the number is what?

>People can only remember about 3-4 items >at a time. The "7 plus or minus 2" rule >is an urban legend. Research shows the >real number is 3-4.

What evidence are you referring to? Cognitive psychology is abundant with papers that confirm 7 based on statistics.

Wow, there's so much going on in Regis' comment that it's hard to know where to start. First, it's pretty danged funny that a guy who was "one of the designers who worked on the standard keyboard design" (link) apparently never learned to use one.

But if you can get past the quality of the writing (it's hard, I know) to try to locate its substance, the comment is quintessential old-curmudgeon: "Kids these days! They think this is music?! My generation *invented* rock-n-roll and it's all been downhill from there."

I honestly don't know what grandpa here thinks qualifies a person to be a "True HF Psychologist" because this article was written by a woman who has a PhD in Psychology and is the Chief of User Experience Strategy at Human Factors International (link). She's not saying she discovered this stuff herself, she's generously sharing a UX psychology primer for those of us who came into the UX field from a different angle.

I'll admit that there are a lot of inexperienced and untrained UX dilettantes out there, but that's because the field is finally taking off and getting investment and so a lot of people are getting into it. Is Regis honestly nostalgic for the good ol' days of HF 20 years ago when (apparently) everyone was better trained but it didn't make any difference since the technology was rudimentary and true understanding of the role of design in software was pretty much nonexistent?

Listen, guy... talking about subjects that people have talked about before isn't "re-discovering thew original woerk," it's sharing, teaching, and learning. Try to find the humility to recognize that although you may know some things that other people don't, other people know a hell of a lot more than you do.

Like I said, UX is a big field--bigger than it was 20 years ago, to be sure. Regis, you probably don't even know what you don't know. That's why you should read things like UX Magazine and learn from the information that's new to you and restrain yourself from getting all haughty when you see something familiar. And you really ought to apologize to the author.

Sorry, but then she should return her degree.

You cannot simply put together Change blindness (especially explained in social behavior context) with User Interface Design in one paragraph.
These 2 topics are simply unrelated.

The author has dicovered Don Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things (Originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things), Most people in the Newly named field of UX don't realize that it started long ago during WWII as Human Factors, which was a specialty of Psychology. UX today requires no psychology or research methods background just programming background in website design and knowledge obtained from three-day classes that teach the basic findings of HF that were revealed by real HF Psycholgists. Because of no formal baxkground in experimental psychology and research methods, most of todays UX is a resemblance of HF science methodologi done in the psuedo-scierntific style of "cargo-cult science". tradition intermixed with business terminology so that CEOs will buy in to its value by inflencing the monetary bottom line.
The purported discovery of topics such as persuation and emotion only reinforces the fact that todays UX prationers have no psychology background. True HF Psychologists know that every psychological tioic or issue being evaluated or assessed must involve three points of evaluation, 1. Behavior, 2. Cognition, and 3. Emotion. Put bluntly, What do people DO, what dp people THINK, and what do people FEEL. If more people would be willing to pay their dues and learn the required bachground to address these issues, the field would be much bettern today and it could advance to newer frontiers than re-discovering thew original woerk of people like Norman whose book as been arounf for more than 20 years. My advice is to go back to school and get a formal degree in Psychology with Research methodd and baxkground in the Scientific method. Then tale the three-day course in "How to talk like a CEO" to sell your service to industry.

Regis- there is a difference between people talking theory and common sense. many articles are written just based on some common sense- whereas "three points of evaluation" etc- they are just plain theory. articles such as this one, they cover it all but the language is not the one you would expect and you would find a lot of people with "formal degree in Psychology" with no idea about UX- they can only talk theory (and ofcourse, you might like that.)

Hi Regis,

I think your criticism is a bit unjustified, although I'm not really sure who it's aimed at - the highly-experienced and qualified author of the article or user experience designers in general who appreciate the article Susan has published here.

User experience designers each bring unique perspectives and skills to the field, more-so those who've come from other industries such as software development, psychology or human factors engineering.

We should be cautious to say that all UX'ers must have prerequisite psychology or human factors qualifications to be permitted to practice. I think that's a bit narrow-minded and will impede the progress of the industry.

Speaking of progress, whilst Norman's views 20 years ago may be valid, just like your human factors certification in 1991, things move on and change. We accumulate new knowledge, create new techniques and sometimes discard old information and ideas that are no longer of use. Whilst we should be aware and mindful of what has come before, lets not walk backwards into the future by constantly referring to 1947.

For example, your evaluation framework that you awkwardly threw into the mix there ... is that still valid? Was social experience design around in 1991 ... or 1947?

We all need to appreciate and respect each others expertise - regardless of who's holding the fancy piece of paper from a university.

Thanks for your reply Nathanael. I'm sorry for upsetting the applecart but my comments were not meant to offend anyone especially Susan who is very competent and high trained in the necessary and required skills to engage in UX. In fact after seeing the direction the field is heading, I only wish she complete a project she is working on called "100 Things You Need to Know about People". For many in the current UX field, I think this might be their only formal exposure to psychology which is the essence of UX; namely; "People" (a.k.a Users, customers, & stakeholders)-- how they behave, percieve, learn, think, amd feel.

Above all, do not discsard the prior knowledge of HF, UI, & HCI, but instaed use it as the foundation to build, & expand the field to incorporate new technologies and social trends. Imcorporate the wisdom of Sir Issac Newton (another old carmugeon like myself) who revealed that his dicoveries were only possible because "he stood on the shoulders of the giants who preceded him".

When I was 21 years old I thought I knew it all and had all the answers. But 40 years later I now realize how much I still need to learn about everything. I want the field of UX to grow and expand but I don't want to see its practioners waste their time re-inventing and re-discovering the knowledge that preceded them.

In short, my first post was nothing more than the sagely advice of George Santaanna who said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

Ok that made more sense and I totally agree with you. As the saying goes: There are no new ideas, just different ways of combining old ideas.

Given there are very few UX courses around (last time I checked the University of Texas was the only tertiary education institution offering UX courses, and they were only a couple of days long) perhaps we need to be focussing on how novice UX practitioners can be inducted into the field.

All the UX practioners I know have come from somewhere else and I suspect that's simply because UX is relatively new whilst the fundamentals are not. But sooner or later we're going to see UX'ers coming straight out of school with no background in psychology, human factors, software development, design etc.

My thoughts are that UX has a relatively high barrier to entry. It's not like web design where anyone with Photoshop and a text editor can go and do a hack job of a website. UX requires a lot of facilitation expertise and experience, in running workshops, usability testing sessions etc. Pretty daunting stuff for people who are trying to jump the queue and not do their homework. I'd like to think employers could readily identify the charlatans.

Thanks for responding and clarifying Regis :)

Nathanael, I'm glad you understand my point. After reading your reply about the lack of short courses in the field, I suddly remembered something that may interest you, When I was first hired by IBM back in '82, they sent everyone who was involved in the newly formed Human Factors departments to a short 2-week course in HF that was offered by the University of Michigan. It was very good and gave a great background in all aspects of HF/UI/HCI and UX. The good news is they have been offering that course every year and it is being constantly updated to all of the newer developments un the field. This course sure beats the time to get a college degree and it's a quick way of getting trained. Moreover, You get a nice certificste of completion from the Univ. of Mich. that's suitable for framing and looks good on your resume!
The program is still on and it's offerred every summer. Go to this site and check it out:

Good luck!

Drat, I thought this would do threaded replies..

Anyhoo, with regards to the chunks that can be stored in working memory (7+/-2 or as indicated here 3-4) this is definitely a case of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing as is widely misapplied. It relates to chunks of information being held in working memory, it has near zero application to well designed menus and structures etc.

A very good article, summarising lots of important and relevant points. Definitely worth a read and passing around to colleagues.

For anyone who finds Susan's article particularly revelatory it is well worth looking at the UK MOD's Defence Standard DEF-STAN 00-250 (and in particular part 15

Thanks - brilliant stuff.

Great, lots of good stuff, presented very well...

"People will often want more information than they can actually process. Having more information makes people feel that they have more choices. Having more choices makes people feel in control. Feeling in control makes people feel they will survive better."


Yes, The Paradox of Choice (Barry Schwartz) is a great book. I have read it.

Great post! I am a Psychology major turned front-end web developer, so this really hits home for me.

Nice reading. Thanks.

Hi Susan,
Could provide a link or reference to the research that shows people can only remember 3-4 items at a time please?

Thank you!

I saw your post and thought I would comment,

George Miller's classic 1956 study on short-term memory found that the amount of information which can be remembered on one exposure is between five and nine items, depending on the information.

Applying a range of +2 or -2, the number 7 became known as Miller's Magic Number, the number of items which can be held in Short-Term Memory at any one time.

Miller himself stated that his magic number was for items with one aspect. His work is based on subjects listening to a number of auditory tones that varied only in pitch. Each tone was presented separately, and the subject was asked to identify each tone relative to the others she had already heard, by assigning it a number. After about five or six tones, subjects began to get confused, and their capacity for making further tone judgments broke down.

He found this to be true of a number of other tasks. But if more aspects are included, then we can remember more, depending upon our familiarity and the complexity of the subject (in Miller's research, there was only one aspect -- the tone). For example, we can remember way more human faces as there are a number of aspects, such as hair color, hair style, shape of face, facial hair, etc.

Bravo! One of the most useful and precise articles that I have read on the web.

PLEASE, continue the topic!

Thank you very much, all in one place. I will use this to inform my own new web site build which is overdue.

Great article, learnt a lot from it, many thanks.

simple and very consistent. many thanks for the article!

Great job ... thanks for post

Wow, fantastic article! Thank you very much!

This is hands down one of the best UX articles I've ever read. Thanks for providing me with this valuable information. "Progressive disclosure" is the exact term I needed when I was trying to explain to a client that sticking a load of text above a form on a website really isn't the best thing to do.

Unfortunately, upon handing all of the files over, he discarded my professional opinion and has filled the site with a lot of useless information. I know I shouldn't let it, but it's upset me that a) he's not taking my opinion/experience at all and thinking he knows best and b) he's slaughtering something that I slaved over for hours just because he's comparing it to the likes of eBay and Yell when he's just a small guy.

I run into the same problem sometimes with clients, which is why sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to be an architect instead, because after the building is erected, the structure just never changes. However, we see clients taking over a site and persisting to place so much information and clutter, thus making the experience more complicated than it has to be for the user.

In this case just let him have what he wants. Any client is a human being which is not always reasonable (rational)

Great article. It mirrors and compliments similar statements in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by R. Cialdini.

I think you're forgetting one key point.... sometimes it's more marketable to make something a bit of a chore to understand... something they can work for.

Interesting read. I lived by 7 plus or minus 2-rule. I now have to rethink. :)

Great article..effective points...thanks for sharing this great article....

nice article! i have several pages of notes now to re-read and help with my design process. well researched and documented!



Great article. Will bookmark it, print it, and fuse it into my brain for reference.

Interesting question Justin, and interesting answer Susan. What factors affect the paradox situation. Can one set up framing to avoid such a paradox? I wonder if the same set of options presented using two different themes / skins / styling results with the same amount of overwhelmingness.

I imagine the points of this guideline could be put to use, playing on some of the points, like color and giving examples, large fonts, breaking large content into chunks, etc, would make all the difference in alleviating, or at least minimizing, the amount of users falling within the paradox.

I love reading stuff like this, where design and development skills merge with the inner workings of humans in order to achieve a forced or predicted outcome / experience. Truly fascinating!

Excellent article!

Susan - excellent framework for a diverse set of UX considerations and standards. I also appreciate the links into the research you cite and examples. I'm sure I will be leveraging this in the future with clients and colleagues.

One item I would question, however, is that "People can only remember about 3-4 items at a time." My experience, having tested hundreds of users on this, is that the number can be larger than 3-4 in certain contexts. For example, I have seen users easily remember upwards of seven steps in an online process where those steps align well with existing 'real world' processes (i.e., booking a business trip or onboarding a new employee).




The 3-4 number relates to working memory. If a computer task matches an already known/remembered real life task then the user doesn't have to keep the individual steps in working memory.

This is great!
Thank you for sharing!


I'll be sending to my psych board and all those people who don't understand why a Masters Psych Grad like me is in IT!
It also provides some great ideas for my next presentation of undergrad psych students!

Justin -- It is a paradox. People feel that they will have control if they have choices, so they want the choices, but when they actually have the choices in front of them, then they don't know what to do and hence do nothing.

Well done! One of the best UX guidelines I have ever seen.

I used alot of metaphors in the past to communicate these exact lessons:

Nice work.

As above, a fantastic summary.

Great stuff Susan, wonderfully practical tips that can be taken away immediate and put into use.

One question: you stated that "Having more choices makes people feel in control." How does this affect the "paradox of choice" phenomenon, where users have a harder time choosing when presented with more choices?

Is it simply a matter of balance?

Beautifully & simply put.
I shall use it as a great way to convey the basics of ux to programmers and engineers.