Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Science Behind Limited Menus and Short Sentences


a book by Lisa Genova

For a really long time, I've heard about two "Best Practics" for websites. This advice applies across all Internet sites:

  1. Limit menus to 5-7 choices
  2. Write with short sentences
I've tried to apply them as best as I can without understanding why

The first bullet (menus) "felt" right and I've tried to stick to it.

The second bullet (short sentences) is a challenge because I have always prided myself on constructing long and complex sentences; my engineering/systems administrator background encourages me to write and even talk with parenthesis, quotation marks, and footnotes. 😀 (Whew!)

The Science is In!

Thanks to Genova's book "Remember" I now have the why for those two best practices.

In her book, Genova explains lays out how we acquire memories.
  • First, we have to pay attention to something. 
  • Next, she says that we all have a "working memory," which she defines as an assembly area to acquire and consolidate something that could become a memory. 
  • Finally, we move those thoughts from our working memory to our "hypothalamus." That's where we create and store memories.

Working Memory

"Working memory" is sort of a pre-processor for the hypothalamus.

I found the core of her message in the third chapter: "We can only remember seven things for fifteen to thirty seconds in working memory.

She goes on to say, "That magical number of seven ... can be increased by chunking information into organized buckets or meaningful groups."

One example she used is a 10-digit number. She points out that 72773868602 is a difficult number to memorize. It's a number that is difficult to grasp, understand, and use. That's because it is larger than the 5-7 limit.

We can break that number down into chunks that are more manageable: 727 386 8602, which is my business phone number (727) 396-8602!

[#1] 5-7 Menu Choices

My first takeaway is that I should limit menu choices to never more than seven options. Preferably these are one-word choices.

[#2] Short Sentences

My second takeaway, using short sentences, is based on the 15-30 second loop that is running in our short-term memory.

According to Genova, our minds continually monitor what we are paying attention to. This goes on all the time. But it's a loop. As time passes, and our environment changes, new "stuff" is recorded and old "stuff" is erased or overwritten.

That loop records only 15 to 30 seconds. That's an important tidbit of knowledge.

If a sentence takes too long to read, we often forget the first part. We have to go back to re-read it. It doesn't have to do with the complexity of the sentence. It has everything to do with the amount of time it takes to read it.

In other words, by the time we read the end of a long sentence we have already forgotten the beginning. (Again, the author explains it much better in her book.)


Segue | Transition | Conclusion

5-7 Menu Choices and Short Sentences were the two things I wanted to share with you.

The rest of this article is purely personal, and you're welcome to skip it.

I picked up the book when I read teasers that raised basic questions, such as "why do we forget why we went into a room?" 

I am a septuagenarian. There's always the fear of dementia lurking in my mind. Yes, I will walk into a room and forget why. Sometimes I'll be introduced to someone and forget their name 10 minutes later. I'll pause mid-sentence to search for exactly the right word.

My morning walk includes a sidewalk that has a wooden bridge about halfway through. As I was walking back yesterday, I realized that I could not remember walking over it the first time!

When Genova described something she called "tip of the tongue" she was talking about something that I could understand and relate to.

Guess what? Those events are all "normal" and human. Genova uses science to explain that our brains are supposed to work that way!

Time Goes Faster As We Age?

I've also noticed that as I age that time seems to go by really fast.

This weekend, according to my calendar, it's time to change the sheets on my bed. I queue it up every three weeks. I don't feel that three weeks have gone by. 

Genova says that we don't remember what we don't pay attention to. She also says that we don't pay attention to routine activities.

My days have become filled with routine, especially since I've (ahem!) matured, In other words, my days seem like so many other days that have gone on before now. There is nothing remarkable about any one particular day. It's easier to remember the routine than it is for me to remember specific events within each routine.

What do you think? Add your thoughts in the comments below. Time goes by faster because I forget the day-to-day routine stuff. At my age, there is more of it.  Just a thought....


I was entertained throughout the book. For example, the author told the tragic story of Henry Madison who had his hypothalamus removed in 1953. This surgery was to relieve the seizures he had for almost 20 years. His seizures stopped, but he was unable to make new memories. "HM" reminded me of 10-Second Tom in the 2004 movie "50 First Dates." (Genova's book was published in March 2021, and I borrowed a copy from my local library.)

The book has 18 chapters in three major sections:
  • How We Remember
    • 6 Chapters (1-6)
  • Why We Forget
    • 7 Chapters (7-13)
  • Improve or Impair
    • 5 Chapters (14-18)
I am just now starting the 2nd section about forgetting. If there are any more lessons I can apply to business then I will add them to this article.

I believe the book is well worth your time to read!

== End ==

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