Saturday, October 27, 2007

Common Usability Terms, pt. I: Spatial Memory

Defining spatial memory ...

"This is the first article in a series on common usability and graphical user interface related terms. On the internet, and especially in forum discussions like we all have here on OSNews, it is almost certain that in any given discussion, someone will most likely bring up usability and GUI related terms - things like spatial memory, widgets, consistency, Fitts' Law, and more. The aim of this series is to explain these terms, learn something about their origins, and finally rate their importance in the field of usability and (graphical) user interface design. We start off with spatial memory - my personal favourite.

... What is spatial memory? Memory is a given, but what does spatial refer to? According to the Concise English Dictionary, the definition is as follows:

"Spatial or spacial adj relating to or occurring in space."

Spatial memory, therefore, relates to how the brain stores information regarding the location of physical objects in space - the environment around you. Spatial memory is extremely vital for many species' survival, including us humans: it allows you to find your way in a familiar city, it allows a rat to learn the location of food in a maze, and it allows cats to find their food bowl in the kitchen. Obviously, earlier on in our evolution, it allowed our ancestors to locate sources of water, food, and shelter.

On a side note, research (Kessels, 2002) has shown that spatial memory is not specifically tied to the right hemisphere of the brain (the left hemisphere for some left-handed people), as was thought (and proclaimed in popular psychology). The theory now is that spatial memory consists of a set of sub processes (and of course, as is usually the case in psychology, spatial memory itself is a sub-process), some of which take place in the left hemisphere, and some in the right hemisphere. Just in case you want to know.

A good, real-world example of spatial memory is the tea box I have in my kitchen. It is a wooden box with a lid, and the inside of the box is divided into 12 squares, each of which carries a specific tea - Earl Grey, traditional English tea, Ceylon, mango, cinnamon, you name it. My tea box is located in one of the top kitchen cabinets, and seeing I am not a very tall guy, I cannot look into the box without taking it out of the cabinet. Now, over time, spatial memory has allowed me to learn in which square each of the individual types of tea are. Without specifically sitting down, with the box in front of me, learning each tea's location, spatial memory has gradually taught me where each type is. I do not have to take the box out if I want cinnamon tea - I know, by spatial memory, which square I need to put my fingers into.

Now, how does spatial memory apply to the world of graphical user interfaces? Take the application menubar for example. Just look at a set of screenshots of various menubars in Windows XP (Media Center Edition 2005, in case you want to know): (below)

As you can see, and, as you probably already know, menubars in one operating system (and, in fact, even across various operating systems) are fairly consistent, at least for the first three to four entries. Whenever an application breaks the usual menu arrangements, like one of the examples above (that is Notepad++, in case you want to know), it stands out, simply because it does not follow the usual pattern. If we go one level deeper, into the individual menus, you will notice that even those tend to be arranged in a consistent manner (where possible, of course)."    (Continued via OSNews)    [Usability Resources]

Menubars WinXP - Usability, User Interface Design

Menubars WinXP

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