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First Impressions Last

Ever wonder what is the maximum number of items a drop down list can have? Does the sequence of the items in the list affect the interaction of the viewer?

The Serial Position Effect explains the phenomenon of memory where items presented at the beginning and ends of lists are more likely to be remembered than those in the middle of the list. The term ‘Serial Position Effect’ was first coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus based on studies on himself and others, where he best recalled items from the end of a list (the recency effect) and more frequently among the first items than among the middle ones (the primacy effect).

For example, consider the following list and try to remember the items in the list.


List image

It will be observed that you will more reliably recall items in position 1, 2, 6 and 7 than those in the position 3, 4 and 5.

When we recall the first few items on the list, its called the Primary Effect. Primacy effects happen because there is more chance of earlier items being stored in long-term memory (long term memorisation requires rehearsal of the list with less likelihood of remembering the further along the list you go). When lists are rapidly presented, the effect is weaker because there is no time for long-term memory to work. When lists are presented slowly, the effect is stronger as there is more time to store in long-term memory.

Recency effects occur as the last few items in a list are still in working memory and therefore readily available. The strength of this effect is not impacted by the speed of delivery. However, passage of time has a huge effect on the recall of information, weakening the recency effect. If you are distracted by other matters for even 30 seconds, then this effect completely disappears. This is not true on the primacy effect which relies on long-term memory.

What does this have to do with making great content, you ask?

Well, great content starts with great copy, and the arrangement of that copy can dramatically impact how much or how little your viewer will remember. Your content may relay several messages in a list, or you might ask viewers to remember a coupon code, phone number or SMS code. In each of these cases, even a simple modification to how the information is presented can have a significant impact on how much the viewer will remember later.

You can take advantage of this knowledge when presenting information in lists (be it a set of links, your sales pitch, a feature list, client list, etc.)

– Place the least important items in the middle of your lists because these items tend to be stored less frequently in long-term memory and working memory.

– If the viewer’s decision is to be taken long after exposure (> 30 seconds), then place the most important items first. If the decision is to be taken immediately after reading the list, then place the most important item last on the list.

If all the information is equally important, then the best thing to do is group the items in chunks. Presenting long lists of information places significant strain on limited attentional resources and restricted memory systems, especially short-term memory, where it appears only three or four items ‘chunks’ can be maintained at one time. Therefore, you should reduce the strain on viewers by presenting information in small pockets, or chunks, and limit the amount of distraction between presentation of items and recall.

Quite simply, Chunking is a way of arranging information so that your memory has to recall fewer items later. Chunking is the most effective when all of the items in the list are roughly the same “type” and “size” (e.g. numbers versus words versus phrases). That’s where coding comes in. Simply put, Coding is how our brains make things easier to remember by arranging them into groups of like items. By “like items,” I mean practically any grouping that makes the list’s elements seem more similar to each other.

Our brains do chunking and coding automatically as we make our way through the world. However, given how much competition and visual clutter your content may face, you might want to take these few steps to make sure the process is as easy as possible. After all, viewers may only be gracing you with a few seconds of their attention, so you need to make that exposure count.

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