An article published in Science Magazine in June provides evidence that the Internet has become an “external part” of our memory systems. Rather than remembering information, we seem to have “outsourced” this effortful task to an entity other than ourselves.

On the face of it, this is not an astounding finding in that psychologists have demonstrated for over 30 years that we use outside sources, such as family or team members, to supplement our less-than-perfect memories. What makes this research remarkable, and of interest to the UX community, is that the researchers found that when we expect to be able to access information in the future, we tend to have reduced memory for the actual information, but enhanced memory for where to find the information. Thus, while we do measurably worse at remembering that the capital of Vermont is Montpellier, we apparently remember with greater accuracy, where on the bookshelf the atlas is located. These findings suggest that making sites memorable as the repository of information may be the key to gaining return visitors.

What the Science Demonstrated

The Science Magazine article’s authors conducted a series of experiments that explored whether the Internet actually functions as an external memory source. In the first experiment they found that attempting to answer difficult trivia questions disposes people to think of computer-related terms and brand names such as Google and Yahoo!. In the second experiment they found that memory for information is better if people do not believe they will have access to the information in the future. In the third and fourth experiments they showed that when people believe they will have access to information in the future, they are more likely to remember where to find the information than actually remembering the information itself.

The authors propose that this is an adaptive use of memory—we use the Internet as an external source of memory because it is available as an easy repository for knowledge we do not store in our brains. They conclude that we are using the Internet in a manner akin to transactive memory, a social form of external memory in which individuals within a team or social group rely on one another to be sources of information.

These findings suggest that people are willing to spend more energy remembering the location of information rather than the information per se. What does this mean for the UX community? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer lies in the three components of transactive memory: specialization, coordination, and credibility.

Transactive Memory and Reliance on a Conglomerate

Transactive memory theory is based on the idea that individuals can serve as external memory stores for others. Typically, the theory relates to groups of people such as families or work groups. Each individual has specialized knowledge, and other group members rely on the “expert” to be the keeper of that knowledge and share it when necessary. Although people often form their own memories of information, they also rely on others to hold that knowledge. For example, one spouse might be the keeper of knowledge about how the furnace works, allowing the other spouse to ask for the information if it’s needed without having to retain the memory him or herself. The memory is transactive in that the content of the memory is passed between the knower and the person with the need to know.

Transactive memory is thought to be composed of three components: specialization, coordination, and credibility. Specialization results from one member of a team assuming expertise in knowledge not held by other team members. Coordination occurs when the team members develop a “metamemory” of each member’s specialization, and credibility describes the extent to which team members believe in the accuracy and trustworthiness of one another’s knowledge. In other words, once a team has developed a transactive memory and each team member believes in each other’s skills, then success of the group is predicted by the conglomerate rather than relying on each individual to remember everything. The gain here is twofold: first, the group can rely on an expert, and second the group gains greater efficiency.

Successful Websites Reflect Elements of Transactive Memory

Singular purpose

It’s spooky, upon consideration, how many successful websites faithfully mirror the components of transactive memory described above. Some of the most successful sites specialize in a particular offering—Expedia does travel, Epicurious focuses on food, and Amazon sells stuff. Even though they are large sites, there is a core offering that is easy to remember. Amazon may sell many products, but they do not offer information about how to use these products or news about the product manufacturers. Similarly, Expedia is known for travel—booking flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises, etc.—but is not known for advice on planning a trip. These sites have a singular purpose and state it unequivocally. We return to them when we want what they offer; there is no need to search for “travel” or “books.” Thus, site specialization may contribute to memorability.

Lack of specialization can potentially hurt a site’s memorability. Case in point: This site attempts to be all things to all people. Lack of broad loyalty may be due to users’ inability to pinpoint what precisely the site can offer them. Breadth makes it cumbersome.

There is one way, however, where breadth is apparently, powerful: what if people believe a site is the gatekeeper to all knowledge? As a matter of fact they do. Google appears to have become our metamemory and in this way has cornered the information market. Don’t believe me? Just Google it!

Niche market segments, products or services, or geographic concentration of resources may be recommended. This strategy may increase the probability that users will remember the location of information rather than the information itself.

Coordination is metamemory

Coordination is the user’s awareness of all the sites needed to get through the day. Supplies, sustenance, and resuscitation easily translate into shopping, food, and vacation. This, in turn, is one step away from Amazon,, and Travelocity. Metamemory, therefore, is the awareness and categorization of all information sources.

Just being memorable is not enough

Finally, credibility of a site is crucial for return visits. Memorability of information location is not enough; users need to feel that a site is trustworthy in order to make it worth remembering. Trust can be generated in multiple ways. Firstly, trust comes through making a site understandable. Understanding provides a feeling of control that results in positive regard for a site and site owner. Trust is also increased when a site functions without errors and appears professional. Credibility is also dependent upon the perceived accuracy of content. Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor utilize user-generated content, and trust is an emergent property based upon convergence of opinions. Additionally, the authenticity of posted information is subject to questioning by the users themselves and thereby subject to the requisite checks and balances. Alternately, sites like CNET gain their credibility through the use of expert reviewers. Regardless of how it is earned, trust is a critical component of memorability.

The science has offered us a blueprint for gathering and keeping a loyal and satisfied customer base. This is likely to work best when websites use the heuristics of human cognition to allow the customer’s experience to echo their own natural behavior. In this specific case, being a credible information source for a specialized offering seems to form the foundation and framework for loyal customers because of the human penchant to form metamemory systems.