Information Architecture: Building Mental Castles

Prosopagnosia and Topographical Agnosia

Not all memory structures are created equal. Humans have an amazing variability in our capacities to commit information to memory and to use this information flexibly to achieve our certain goals.

Consider facial memory: our ability to remember a face even when out of context of original interaction. Like all cognitive abilities, facial recognition spans the continuum: there are people who basically lack this capacity (Oliver Sacks, a famous neurologist who wrote “A Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “Awakenings” is one such example.) and then there are those who “never forget a face.” Most us are somewhere in between. I’m, personally, worse than most but perhaps not as bad as Dr. Sacks. (I taught science at a local elementary school, and to this day people stop me on a street and greet me in a very familiar way while I haven’t a slightest idea of who they are, never mind their names—very disconcerting.) The condition of being a lousy face recognizer is called Prosopagnosia and it tends to come with a complimentary Topographical Agnosia (or inability to identify places and thus having bad navigational skills).

If you don’t remember faces and places, you have to develop coping skills (a spouse or an assistant who can whisper the name of the person in front of you and help find your way home or name tags and GPS locator). But it’s frightening to imagine a life where you can’t recognize your husband or pick up the wrong child from school or get lost in a shopping mall. If you have Prosopagnosia and/or Topographical Agnosia, the regular interface clues to the world are just not sufficient.

World Memory Championships

There was an article in the New York Times recently describing the training process to become a “memory athlete” good enough to compete in the World Memory Championships (see reference below). The point of the article was that ALL competitors had average memory abilities! What stood them apart from the general population, what made them look like cognitive magicians, was the memory enhancing skills they’ve learned. Again, not all human memory is equally good. In particular, as a species, we tend to enjoy good topographical memory (those with sever Topographical Agnosia notwithstanding). We also have an excellent emotional memory—go amygdala! Pleasant or otherwise, we remember the emotional content of experience even when we forget other details. Combine these two cognitive attributes and we get an excellent tool for enhancing memory. This is called “thinking in a more memorable ways.” We can also call it cognitive scaffolding. “The point of memory techniques to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.”—from the “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer.”

The technique described in the “Secrets of a Mind-Gamer” combines surprising combinations (think can drinking coffee) that tickle the amygdala and spatial memory (cat drinking coffee while sitting in a refrigerator). So world champion mnemonists “collect” places which can hold interesting objects that are tied to a particular memory (please read the New York Times article for examples and fun memory tests you can take). A castle with many unique rooms and twists of architecture can hold imagery as the memory athletes “walk” about looking for memories to retrieve. The act of remembering becomes an act of moving around in an imaginary location, with each location triggering a thought.

Information Architecture

So this brings us to IA—Information Architecture. It’s interesting that we the designers chose the term “architecture” to describe the informational structure of a web site. There are certainly other terms we could have used: information spread sheet, taxonomy, info set design, info strategy, informational grammar (or syntax), informational anatomy, table of contents, information layout or map (although this starts to move toward topology again), etc. But we chose architecture, why? Perhaps it is due to an unconscious recognition of the strength of topological memory in humans.

What does this mean to our users? To people who visit the web sites we design? Do they, knowingly or unknowingly, visualize architectural structures as they navigate web sites? And if they do, can we reinforce this tendency, helping them find the desired information easier? Can we use the tricks of memory athletes to improve information design? Food for thought…

“Secrets of a Mind-Gamer,” New York Times by Joshua Foer, published on February 15, 2011.