S2E4 – Millers Law

George Miller, wrote a paper in 1965, called “The magical number seven, plus or minus two” which describes limits to our capacity for processing information.

This paper laid out the groundwork for “Miller’s Law”, which is “The average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory.”

In this episode we talk about how this does not nessecarily a limit that means that you can only handle 7 items, but rather, that you have to be thoughtful about how you manage information, and as a designer, you think about how you chunk your data, and build hierarchies of information, for the user to comprehend information better.


Downlad the Original Paper – MagicNumberSeven-Miller1956.pdf

Season 1 Episode 4 – Constraints and Conventions

Tribes – Seth Godin

Eat that Frog

Supermarket Sweep


Martin Whiskin 0:02
You’re listening to hidden by design a podcast about the stuff that you didn’t know about design. My name is Martin. And this is?

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:10
Hidden by design.

Martin Whiskin 0:11
Nailed it.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:12
Oh, yeah. And my name is Thorbjørn. Now the podcast starts!

Martin Whiskin 0:18
and we should start recording now

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:20
are you not recording

We’re doing it completely different today,

Martin Whiskin 0:28
always experimenting, we’re striving to improve our methods.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:34
This doesn’t feel good.

Martin Whiskin 0:37
So I’m gonna let you into a secret today. There are no slides to work from.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:41

Martin Whiskin 0:42
It is exciting. It’s gonna be a roller coaster.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 0:45
It’s gonna be scary. Like I I am well prepared that I have to say that, but I didn’t script everything as we usually do. So So today, it’s kind of freestyling it. Oh, as far as you can freestyle.

Martin Whiskin 1:02
Yea, today is going to be a freestyle rap about Miller’s law.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 1:09
Wait, wait. What are we talking about today?

Martin Whiskin 1:13
Miller’s law, I believe

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 1:15
Millis law. All right.

Martin Whiskin 1:17
So I hit them straight away with a quote of the day. Yeah, please do about Miller’s law. So this is from someone called Steven Covey. And this is how prepared we were, I have no idea who he is. I didn’t do any research. So if he’s a horrible person, we apologize. Stephen Covey said, listen, with the intent to understand not the intent to reply,

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 1:42
Which is absolutely beautiful. And the reason why it’s beautiful is because today we’re slight, we’re talking about Millers law, I’m going to try to explain as simply as I can, what it is, it’s not really that difficult to understand. But then again, it’s like as soon as you start digging into detail, so So this guy called George Miller, wrote a paper in 1965. That was called the magical number seven, plus or minus two, some limits to our capacity for processing information. And, as far as I remember, this is kind of like a sequel to a paper he wrote before about our ability to understand what people tell us. So that’s why it fits in perfectly, because there’s, there’s some, like when we’re having a conversation, and you get a lot of information, and you like, first off, you have to believe what the other person say. And then after that, you have to interpret what you make of what the other person is saying that you believe to be true. And so he’s kind of he’s is, that’s what he’s doing. George Miller is, is kind of investigating this, our, our, how our minds perceive information. And so he made this the magical number seven plus minus two, which is kind of Millers law. And what it basically means is that you, every human being can process seven items of information, or seven things, seven informations at any given time plus minus two, right? So some people, that’s five, some people, it’s nine, some people, it’s seven. So when you do things, in general, like you convey information to someone else, you typically want to lie in that, you know, spectrum. Now, the interesting part, then is, and so, I’m going to come with an example in a moment that we talked about previously, which is the shopping list. So So, so the thing is, and what he found out is, which is really, really interesting is that it’s not actually the information itself that’s important is the way that it’s presented. So as an example, remembering seven different numbers, so five different numbers is just as difficult as remembering five different words. So he works like you know, when when you work with Millis law, you work with these two different things. One is called groups, or chunking, chunks, and then bits. And so bits is bits of information and chunking is putting them together. So as human beings, we have this idea, just like we have this thing that, that we kind of like we can chunk things together. And then it’s easier to remember. So as an example, a phone number, I don’t know how many phone numbers you have, but we have eight. There’s like eight numbers, digits in the phone number if we don’t take the country code with it. And so the best way of remembering a phone number is to chunk it up. So you chunk it up in, you know, the first number, which is two digits, and then two numbers, who are three digits. So you only have to remember three numbers.

Martin Whiskin 5:33
11, and ours

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 5:34

Martin Whiskin 5:35
Yeah. So that’s, that’s going outside of of Miller’s law by plus four, isn’t it?

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 5:42
But then I guess you can chunk it right. So you will chunk so when you remember your number you don’t remember all numbers, you remember, chunks of it.

Martin Whiskin 5:49
Yes, is always split up, always.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 5:52
So here’s a funny thing, right? So in Denmark, we have this thing, we we split it up, like there’s eight, so we split it up in four numbers. So it’s like 2, 2, 2, 2. And I read, when we’re from six numbers to eight numbers, the Danish telecom company wanted to make it two numbers, like one number of two, and then two numbers of three. So you only had to remember three. But people were so used to only having three, it’s like two numbers in each. So no matter what they did, everyone would just go like, you know, 2, 2, 2, 2. Now, I remembered my number, when I got my phone number, I found a number that was perfect for, you know, three digits. And it’s really, really funny when I have to say my phone number to some, you know, official people, or anyone, and I say it that way. And they get completely thrown off. Because that’s not what they was expecting. So you can see that I have to repeat it many times because they don’t understand it.

Martin Whiskin 6:59
So going back to going back to a previous episode, is that a convention

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 7:04
That is a convention that is then mixed with Millers law, right? That that is absolutely a convention that people now are used to doing it that way.

Martin Whiskin 7:12
That’s That’s proof there, again, that the podcast works, I remember that from the lesson.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 7:17
It’s absolutely amazing

Martin Whiskin 7:19

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 7:27
So I guess like, I don’t know, if you can come up, like if you can think of anything in your life where you know, you chunk stuff, if we go actually the shopping list, that was what I was supposed to talk about. And so this is why when you have a shopping list, right? Typically what you will do, you will try to chunk that information into two smaller bits, right? So you know that there’s vegetables, there’s two vegetables. So you kind of have the vegetables, you have the shopping list, which is the whole thing in your head. And then you have the different items. And when you go shop, you also have this chunking off, what are you looking for, so you kind of put things together and you look for it. If you’re an advanced shopper, like me, you know how to you know how to traverse the store.

Martin Whiskin 8:19
I think I know how to traverse the store. And then when I’m in there, I’m just all over the place back and forth.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 8:24
We used I used to take my kids, they loved it because we would do treasure hunts. Right. So I would give them an item and they would go treasure hunting.

Martin Whiskin 8:36

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 8:36
We be like pirates digging for treasure. Can you think of anything, right? So the shopping list is a good resource. If you if you reach that limit of five items or seven items that you have to remember. It’s like there’s it’s very likely that you’re going to, to forget something

Martin Whiskin 8:53
I’m trying to think. But then the example I’m coming up with is something that I remember far. From when I was about eight years old, I remember the register that was called at the beginning of class every day. And it was we might have to bleep all that said he first names and I was just the boys register and it was Gavin Trevor Martin, Steven, Tim Iqbal, Christopher Graham, Neil. Darren, Adam, Matthew, Matthew. So that’s like, was it it was an 18 or 13 or something? I always remember that. And I guess that’s just that’s different because it’s just every day I heard that repetition, repetition repetition and it just got drilled in Yeah. And 35 years later, I still remember it.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 9:40
But so they chunk this. You were only boys

Martin Whiskin 9:43
there was girls there but they did the boys and the girls separately,

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 9:46
right? Yeah, yeah. So they chunk that. So the names itself is is is information. In reality that is it’s kind of amazing that you remember it right so they chunk it with boys and then girls. And then you have that that list, right? I think like this, this actually brings us a little bit closer to the concept of, because typically when you talk about design and and design us look at midMillers law, they they go like they go with something called Visual chunking. And that means that you group your bits of information into chunks, and then you present the chunks, and then you can get seven chunks of information on a screen at any time or you know, a little bit more a little bit less, less is typically better. But the thing that is often missed is that Millers law is not about visual cues. It’s about information. So that means that it it kind of it goes everywhere. It’s like sounds, it’s letters, words, concepts, of, you know, smells, shopping lists, you name it. Anytime you have to process any type of information, if you have a conversation, like we’re having a conversation right now. And your brain will automatically try to chunk the things that I say, the listener, you’re like you as a listener, is trying to chunk it up, right. So we typically will chunk the episode up in, you know, the intro that quote, than the first explanation of what is the theme of today. And then in the end, we’re going to try to go into some sort of detail, and then it’s goodbye. And in between all of that we kind of put personal banter

Martin Whiskin 11:43
For season two, now we’re doing bits because we’re splitting it. And we’re putting breakers in to give people time to and then. Yeah, and the whole thing is the chunk. Right?

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 11:54
Yeah. So in between breakers, right, so you put in a breaker if you put in a breaker now.

Then after this, right in between the two Breakers is like there’s a, there’s a gap. And information is like so it’s really bad that you actually put it there. Because each chunk of information and so we go back to that it’s like it’s it’s bits, which is all of the words that I say if you read a chunk of text, right, this is this is why a wall of text is bad when you have to read something. And typically, what you want to do is you want to split it up to small paragraphs. And when you then read that paragraph, you will split that up into words as well, or sentences or meanings of that, that paragraph. And so, so if we go back to the episode, I think it’s an episode about the brain where we talk about how the brain is really, really effective episode three of season one, we’re talking about how the brain is absolutely incredibly effective in coming up with things. It absolutely just makes up things. And so that’s what, what is then used in combination with that, right. So when you read a paragraph, what you will remember is key words, and the brain will chuck that into a, a chunk, and then small bits of information. And it will make up the meaning the rest of it itself when you have to remember what do you read?

Martin Whiskin 13:36
Are there different? Are there different levels of chunk? So when you’ve got, for example, a whole book, there’s information that could be a chunk on a page or a chunk go across two pages. What is the collective of chunks? I think he’s what I’m asking. So that like the whole picture.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 13:56
So. So this is absolutely magnificent. Thank you, Martin, because you’re bringing me you’re setting me up for the details.

Martin Whiskin 14:05

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 14:06
So now we’re going into chapter two of the episode, which is the details about the we don’t need slides, slides for amateurs. So your book is an absolute magical example. Because what we’re going to talk about in the details is something called Hierarchy. Typically, you will like any web page that is well designed, you will see a hierarchy right you, you you understand all of the visual element is is is placed in a way so that you so that you can kind of go through that hierarchy and get to the to the end point of of what it is that you need. As an example with your book, as you mentioned, you have the book that’s one chunk Then you have the different chapters, each chapter is a chunk. And then inside of that, you have the paragraphs. And inside of that you have the words. And inside of that you have the letters, right. So you have a clear hierarchy of how to read and approach the book. And you can call, you know, each paragraph a bit, as part of the chunk, that’s called a chapter. And inside of each chapter, some books will have sections, right. So you will have one section that does about something and then another section. And so you, you also mentally chunk that, so, so but there’s typically in any, any set up of something. And it’s like this setup that we’re doing now we’re doing the whole podcast as a chunk, and it have sections inside of it, as we talked about, and inside of the sections, we have smaller bits, right, and these bits actually chunk. So we have a hierarchy of how we present information. And in a book does this really, really well? I don’t know if you ever read a book that doesn’t have chapters, or

Martin Whiskin 16:11
Yes, I did. And it was called, tribes, by Seth Godin i Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of has a natural sort of thing. It doesn’t have chapters, I think it has maybe has headers. Yeah. Every now and then. But there’s no like definite break. So for me personally, when I was reading that, actually, I didn’t get like the right, I finished a chapter now like the progress sensation.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 16:39

Martin Whiskin 16:39
You know, you feel like you’re making progress through something. When you have these, like breakers in a podcast or chapters in a book.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 16:46
Yeah. Did you like it?

Martin Whiskin 16:48
Not really. It’s only a small book. And it felt like it was taking ages to read it.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 16:53
Yeah, I listened to it as an audiobook. So I didn’t get go through that. But, but that is that’s that’s a that’s a, that’s actually a good example, that book was a little bit hard. Not that it was hard to understand or read. It was a good book. But you’re right, it is dense,

Martin Whiskin 17:15
plus an interesting audio as as a voice over artist, as a professional. Yeah, okay. Imagine that the audio book, I’m just thinking of it with no breathing in it whatsoever. So it’s just a constant stream of words.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 17:28
Exactly. And it felt a little bit like that. But, and I think that’s why breaking and pausing and speaking slowly. And in all of this is, is very, very important when you speak is like Don’t be, we have this thing in design, visual design, that you don’t have to be afraid of whitespaces. And I believe that in audio, you probably have similar sayings, like don’t be afraid of the silence, sometimes that actually brings things to the table.

Martin Whiskin 18:01
Yeah, so I was going to give an example there. So when when humans speak, we, we pause, you know, we might pause for thinking about things, or we might pause to to give weight to something. So if I say, I love you, like exactly the exact reaction I was going for, but if I’d have just said, I love you, it’s more, you know, it’s there’s not as much weight to it, because I’m not giving it that suspense almost in what’s coming next.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 18:38
Exactly. And you could say to some, you know, part that you, you chunk, that sentence, even though it’s only three words, then you chunk the first two words in one. And then the last one you put in its own, and you kind of put pressure on it. And so you’re really you make a clear hiearchy what what’s important is like this, and I think that’s like if we go back to the hiearchy little bit, just like typically with information, like your sentence, I love you, then there’s just like part of that. Tried to say it in a different way. I love you

Martin Whiskin 19:20
that goes back to what you were saying about it’s not necessarily about the information but about the way it’s presented. Like just those three words you can say in so many different ways. Yeah, you know, you could say it with you know, it’s the in the intention and the way that you’re engaging someone with it. You know, you could say, like I did, you know, genuine love towards you. Or you could be running away with your wife. And I’m screaming in the background. So

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 19:47
yeah, and if you put the pressure on I love you. It’s like there’s I’ve I really loved that. So nice is like, I guess any sentence but like I think one of the things that we missed talking About when when it comes to Hierachy. And I think your your example of I love you, which is the name of a virus from the 90s. I don’t know if you remember that.

Martin Whiskin 20:09
I remember,

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 20:10
it was absolutely horrific. So it gives the user a clear look, it’s like what’s important about a hierarchy is that it gives the user or the receiver of information, a clear starting point, so I can know where to start, right? So if you look at any web page, if you listen to any read any book, if you listen to any podcasts is you typically want to make that hierarchy of where do I start, what’s, you know, what’s the beginning, and then how to dig into these different bits of information.

There’s two concepts I wanted to talk about briefly, which was information overload and decision paralysis. So this brings us on to the kind of conclusion so we have the visual, like, we have the hierarchy information here at key, which gives you a clear starting point, it gives you all of these things, and then you have these decision. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about decision paralysis,

Martin Whiskin 21:17
no, but I think I could probably work out what it is through, I won’t say anything, I’ll just see what I’ll see what happens just in case I make a fool of myself.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 21:27
So so the book called Eat That Frog, would you recommend it, which is really, really nice, it tries to get rid of that decision paralysis. And in general, decision paralysis is if you have more information that you can cope with you, you don’t know what to do. And if there’s not a clear hierarchy of, of, you know, how information is stacked, then, then you become unable to do anything. And so, so your book about Eat That Frog is very much about chunking your tasks, and the stuff that you need to do during the day. So so, you know, we can see that you can see that when people get stressed, it’s typically not because they can’t really do all of the tasks, they, you know, have all that they missed, like typically, it feels like you’re missing time or you can’t get in. But but in reality, what it is, is you chunk your tasks, you remove the stuff that you don’t need to attend to right now. And then you focus on one thing. And when I’m really really stressed, that’s what I do was like, I take all of the tasks one by one. And if someone is depending on it, I’ll just tell them, I can’t do this, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to do it, and then move it somewhere else. And it just, it’s an insane stress reliever.

Martin Whiskin 23:00
This last week, I I’ve got quite a few different projects on the go at the minute. And they’re all they all need to be finished. And there’s all lots to do still. And I started breaking up my days, like two hours of that one, two hours of that one, two hours of that one, and then two hours of that one. But at the end of each day, I was single I’m not getting, I’m not really getting very far, because I’m only having like, two hours of each project sort of thing. So as I write three can wait, nothing’s going back to your phrase, what you’ve said in a few episodes, I think is about what will happen? Or Will anybody die if I don’t do those? Now for the past, yeah, that was two weeks ago, I think now for the for the past week, I’ve been just working on one task to try and get it to its end. And we’re getting there, we’re getting there.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 23:48
So you’re kind of like digging your way through it but not getting stressed because you take one task at a time and you and you kind of complete that at a professional level. And I think that there’s like, you know, decision, paralysis and information overload ties like, fits together like that. It’s it’s when you look at your task list, and it’s just one long list, you don’t know where to start and you get paralysis like you don’t, you know, you can’t make a decision. And there was a there was a fun experiment of I can’t remember who did it and where it comes from. But there was they would do this thing where you could win something and then you had a specific amount of seconds to find that object. And then you could take that if you could find it, something like that. And then you had the other one, which was you can take all of the objects you want within this timeframe. And typically when they knew or what was told what to take, what you can take, people would take it like they would get more stuff because they wouldn’t have to decide as like it’s just more expensive. And so you have this thing where because all of options in the store was available. They were unable to actually make a decision of clearing the shelves.

Martin Whiskin 25:06
Are we talking about Supermarket Sweep?

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 25:08
I don’t know.

Martin Whiskin 25:08
Um, yeah, so Supermarket Sweep was a TV show where that situation where you you’re given a trolley, they’re told that if you pick up this specific item, it’s worth double the money or whatever. And then so they, some contestants would run to get those first because they would see them as that. And they’d remember those ones. But as we’re just trying to blitz as much stuff as possible, all at once hoping that the sheer volume of things would outweigh getting a special prize.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 25:35
I think these kind of shows us based on that research that was done on that, right. So you do this thing where you give people a lot of different decisions to choose between, or a lot of different information to choose between, and then you will see how they cope with that. Also men and women. I don’t know if you should talk about this. But it’s not gonna it’s not in this. It’s absolutely not looking good for men.

So there’s, there’s this Danish scientist brain scientist called Madsen is his last name. He’s like, he’s called the brain brain, the brain madsen, like his surname, and instead of his first name is called the brain. But he does a lot of hidden and he did some, some, he wrote some stuff, and he did some things. And he also did some TV stuff. And he have this experiment where he’s trying to show something. And and, and he’s talking to men and women doing dishes, like washing up manually with the hand. And then he’s telling you them that the the experiment is something about like, how fast can you do it? No, how well, will you do the dishes? Right? So they think that that’s what it but what it really is about is how well do you focus on the task at hand? And so you see the men kinda, doing the dishes, and then he asked him a question. And without exception, all of the men stops washing up. Now, there’s multiple different laws, while they’re, you know, processing that question, and then answering it. And when, without exception, all of the women just keeps washing up and then answer the questions at the same time. Right. So this is obviously about multitasking, it’s about how our brains are different men and women. And and, and why men can’t focus like was like there’s, you will see these patterns in men’s behavior. And this is one of them, where if we get too much information, we’re very bad at handling that together with doing other tasks like we are, we are really, really depending on Chucking.

Martin Whiskin 28:02
Poor us.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 28:03
Poor us. It sucks. But there’s so many other things that we can do. You know, we can, for example, take risks and be unreasonable confident in ourself. These these are things.

Martin Whiskin 28:20
Yeah. Bad jokes!

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 28:22
Well, but I think it’s like this, like, Do you have any questions? Because I think that’s the end of it.

Martin Whiskin 28:28
This is an enjoyable episode for me, because it’s concepts that I can, I can understand,

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 28:33

Martin Whiskin 28:36
You know, information overload. That’s, you know, I’ve got to do lists as long as my arm as long as both arms actually. And every now and then I will look through it and be like, ah, that is, that is a lot. But you can’t look at it like that, you have to step back and do the hierarchy, which, you know, which I learned from Eat That Frog.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 28:58

Martin Whiskin 28:58
And I pick the thing that either, you know, is a paid job, they always have to come first, obviously. And then after that, it will be, you know, projects that can lead to paid work or, you no further my career, that sort of things as always, but it doesn’t deplete the list of small, annoying jobs that that mean, very, very little. So quite often, every, every couple of months, I will go through that list, and just scribble some of it out. Because if I haven’t done it for a couple of months, it can’t be that important. Yeah. I tried to be quite brutal that way. Because you can just get the feeling of overwhelm and then that’s not good for anybody.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 29:39
No. I do that with stuff. Like papers, important papers, you know, invoices and bills and stuff. And so I have this bag, oh, I have this, what they call it, place that I put it and then when it builds up, I’ll take the entire stack and put it in a bag and then put it up in the attic and then put it date on it. And then at some point, I look at it and it’s a year old and I didn’t look at it or throw it up without looking at it do this was boxes as well.

Martin Whiskin 30:09
It’s strangely, what’s the word I’m looking for? It frees up the mind doing that.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 30:14

Martin Whiskin 30:14
Somehow because even though you haven’t looked at it, when you get rid of it is the sense of, I don’t have to think about that anymore. Even though you haven’t looked at it.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 30:22
Exactly. And I’m, I’m oblivious to What’s in that bag. I just know that I set out to throw it out at some point. And I know that if I opened the box, open the bag and looking at it, there will be stuff that I won’t throw out. So I don’t throw it up blindly.

Martin Whiskin 30:41
For anyone listening. You should always shred that sort of stuff before you throw it out. Because of course

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 30:47
Wait a minute?

Martin Whiskin 30:48
there won’t be people there’s people out there stealing your identity left, right. And

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 30:56
you’re right. I never thought of that

Martin Whiskin 30:58
I do have a shredder but it doesn’t get you

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 31:01
this slightly trusted suggestion box. Whenever one comes with a small annoying task, you say? Don’t worry, I’ll put it in the suggestion box. See, get to it later. So I think that’s it. That’s that’s this episode. So I guess. See you next time.

Martin Whiskin 31:22
Thank you for listening to another episode of Hidden by design. You can find out more about us at hiddenbydesign.net. Or you can find us on LinkedIn. My name is Martin whisking. This is Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen. Yes. Got it. That’s good. You can also like, subscribe, follow the podcast on all of the platforms that’s important to follow it on all of the platforms. Give us five stars. And an excellent review please as well. Thank you.

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 31:48
Can I say something?

Martin Whiskin 31:49

Thorbjørn Lynggaard Sørensen 31:50
We love you. I said something anyways, I’m a bad boy.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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