Principles of Design #38 – Recognition Over Recall

Tip of the tongue

Our ability to recognise things that we have previously experienced is much better than our ability to recall the same things from memory. Recognition is much easier because recognition provides cues which helps us sort through our vast memory and find the most relevant information. We all find multiple choice questions easier than short answer questions, because the list of possible answers makes it easier and quicker to find the right one, as we can narrow down options very efficiently unlike short answer questions which leave a much greater range of possibilities for us to search.

Our recognition memory is also much easier to build than recall, as mere exposure to an object creates the ability to recognise, even without any information on the origin, context or relevance of the memory. Recognition is simply the memory trace that we have experienced something before, through smell, taste, touch, sound or vision. Recall has to rely on the learning of information, usually combining a mixture of memory practise and application (real experience). Recognition memory is also more powerful and lasts much longer than recall, as when we easily recognise a name or a face of an acquaintance long after we have lost the ability to recall the information from memory.

Recognition offers great advantages over recall in the design of interfaces for complex systems (something that many market researchers often forget). early computer systems used to rely on command line interfaces, requiring recall memory for hundreds of commands (and thereby limiting the number of users who were prepared to develop such recall). The shift to graphical user interfaces, which present commands in menus allowing much easier recognition of desired options, eliminated the need to remember so much information, simplifying usability and opening up access to computing power to many more users.

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Our decision making is strongly influenced by recognition as familiarity is known to lead to increased liking (the exposure effect), and we more often than not select familiar items over unfamiliar ones, even when the unfamiliar item is a better choice (because in the real world, sticking to what you know is generally an effective heuristic). In taste tests, participants will almost always rate known brands higher than unknown brands, even if they are ‘objectively’ better (for example, if they perform better in blind tests). The simple reason for this is that our decision is based on more information than just the taste, and we pay attention to our familiarity with something as a key indicator of what our decision should be. This means, that recognition alone if often enough evidence for us to make a choice (over other unknown options).

For designers, this means that it is important to minimise the need to recall information from memory, and rely instead on accessible menus, decision aids and other devices (eg icons) to make available options as visible as possible. Training can be much more effective if it relies on recognition memory rather than recall, as can other types of learning such as brand building. Brands should always emphasise recognition of visible cues in order to build awareness in advertising campaigns.


Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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One thought on “Principles of Design #38 – Recognition Over Recall

  1. Simon Shaw

    Nice post Neil

    This links nicely to Byron Sharp’s argument in ‘How Brands Grow’ that it is distinctiveness (being memorable) rather than differentiation you should aim for.

    Me-too products are fine as long as consumers can easily recognise your communications and find you in store. Branding builds this “mental availability”



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