Total Recall

Did you ever stumble on a song that you haven’t heard in 10 or 15 years? A weird, reflective grin creeps into your face. Within seconds, you’re singing along (maybe just in your head, but still…). Not only are you singing along, but somehow your brain reconnects all the pieces instantly and you recall the entire song nearly perfectly. Right down to the subtle note hits and vocal intonations.


Throughout our lives, we are in a perpetual state of taking in and filing away information. It’s a near constant flow. As we age, the “storage area” where all this stuff is kept gets more and more cluttered. Eventually, we start reaching a point where pulling any one bit of information becomes tricky. Stuff gets buried here or there and unless some event forces us to recall it, we may never contemplate it again. Someone’s name from years ago. Old phone numbers. Lessons learned in 4th or 5th grade. It’s all there. It’s just buried.
But when some event does occur that triggers a recall, it’s amazing how thoroughly we appreciate the details of the recalled data. Music in particular seems to be a special case. The unique characteristics of music seems to lead to more reliable storage. But generally speaking, we once we call the information up, it’s pretty thoroughly accessible.
As we design interfaces around information and controls, we should appreciate the difference between our mediocre ability to recall, and our impressive ability to have all the data at hand once we do recall. I use 37 Signals’ Backpack pretty extensively. All day long I jot down reminders of things to do later, tomorrow, or next Monday. Lately, I’ve reduced my reminder text to one or two words. That’s all I need to “trigger” all the information behind them. “Call Debbie” translates into all kinds of details almost instantly.
So as you think about your information designs, ask yourself how much information the user really needs to get going. After all, the less clutter the more impressive and digestible an interface becomes. Note that this has one key requirement: the user had to have had a hand in creating that data in the first place. That creation process “saves” the data into the person’s brain and all that’s often needed is a reference.
As a side note, I’d argue that people get a certain pleasure out of flexing those recall abilities. It feels really good to quickly piece together information you thought you’d forgetten way back when.
As designers, we should keep an eye out for opportunities to leverage this shared unique ability. With apologies to the Tuftes of the world, sometimes we don’t need all that data at hand. We just need the spark.

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