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Let me ask you a question.

When you were in college, would you rather that your final exam for a class was...

A. An Essay Test B. A Multiple Choice Test

If you are like most people, you would prefer to take a multiple choice test. If I asked you why, your answer would be something like...

- "Because you know the answer is already out there. All you have to do is figure out which one it is." - "It's easier. There's not a lot of thinking involved in a multiple choice test. You don't have to know the answer, you just have to recognize it." - "You don't have to come up with the answer."

Here's another question.

How do you increase the difficulty of a multiple choice test?

Well, there are two things that you can do.

The first, and more obvious, answer is to just add "None of the above" to the options. The second, and more subtle, answer is to add two right answers to the options, but make one answer more right than the other.

Of course, the hardest multiple choice test are those with both "None of the above" and multiple "right" answers.

Why do adding "None of the Above" and multiple right answers make the test harder? Because it shifts the nature of the task. You can no longer be sure that the correct answer is staring you in the face.

You actually have to know the material.

This rather simple example points out a very important principle...

The brain is built for recognition, not recall.

By this, I mean that the brain is better at recognizing a piece of information that already exists in the world than it is at recalling a piece of information that is stored within the brain. The brain is a true connection machine that is designed to make sense of and draw out patterns from the information that we encounter at every moment of every day.

You can see this recognition bias in everyday life.

Quick, draw the face of a penny on a piece of paper. Now check you answer. Did you draw it correctly? Most people do not. Why? Because the brain stores just enough information to be able to recognize a penny when presented with one. It doesn't store any additional information.

Think to yourself how often you use the phrase "It's on the tip of my tongue." How many times a week (or day if you are getting older) are you unable to recall some piece of information that you once knew?

When was the last time that you used the phrase "That gives me an idea..."? What happened at the moment that you uttered that phrase? More likely than not, someone said something that gave you an insight into the solution of a problem that you had not been able to solve using conventional methods.

Which is easier to use, Windows or DOS? Well, while some may disagree, the market seems to be saying that it prefers Windows. Why? Because Windows is easier to use than DOS. Why? Because in a Windows system you do not have to know as much about the computer in order to use it. You are selecting (recognizing) the things that you want the computer to do instead of typing (recalling) them.

Do you find brainstorming to be an effective technique for generating ideas? Many people do not. Why? Because the conventional definition of brainstorming is to lock a bunch of people in a bare-walled conference room. This gives them nothing to work with and forces them to recall all ideas.

So what can you do about it?

Well, the obvious answer is to use the brain as it is designed.

When you need to generate ideas, you need to place the brain in a situation in which it can recognize the answer and not be forced to recall it. Generally, this also means feeding it stimuli that it can process and utilize.

Let me illustrate how to do this by describing an experiment that I conducted in a class that I taught at Washington University.

I asked for two volunteers who felt that they could write. I then gave them the challenge of producing an interesting, creative, different poem. I gave the first person a Magnetic Poetry kit. I gave the second person a blank sheet of paper. This is what they produced...

"All I get is this stupid blank sheet This guy is pretty neat. I could really use the stickers. I like poetry, that's the kicker."

"I recall a psychedelic fire the goddess gazes I inspire a flower."

Obviously, the first person was given the blank sheet of paper and the second person was given the Magnetic Poetry kit.

When I asked the class to rate the fit of the two works to the goal that I described, approximately 40% of the class said that the first poem was a better fit and 60% of the class said that the second poem was a better fit.

Personally, I feel that the second poem is better than the first. It is more interesting and more creative while the second is somewhat trite. There is more to poetry than rhyming.

What is interesting is that some people noticed an interesting fact about the exercise. The person with the blank sheet of paper completed the exercise is about 45 seconds. He appeared to put down the first thing that came to mind. In contrast, the person with the Magnetic Poetry kit was still going when time was called at one minute. Others felt that the Magnetic Poetry person could have continued working for several minutes.

Another thing that some people mentioned is that they thought the person who used the Magnetic Poetry kit would be more constrained by the limited choices. While I agree that the quality and nature of the stimuli that are chosen can affect the quality of the results, I don't think that this proved to be the case. In fact, in my opinion the person with the blank sheet of paper was more constrained because he had a time pressure and nothing to work with. He had an infinite set of possibilities and had to write down the first thing that came into his mind.

So what should you take away from this column? I think the main thing is to remember the principle...

Recognition, not recall

That means that when you are generating ideas you need to make liberal use of stimuli. Stimuli that I have found to be effective include...

- Books - Movies - Magazines - Newspapers - Catalogs - Dictionaries - Magnetic Poetry - The Phone Book - Malls - Wal-Mart - Downtown - Bookstores - Magazine Racks

If you structure your idea generating efforts around this principle, then you will be using the brain in the manner in which it was designed to operate and will have a much better chance of succeeding at your task.

Before I conclude, let me first give you some links to material that you can read that describe this principle in depth.

I first came across this principle while reading about Human Factors and User Interface design.

The book "Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface" (1987) has this to say about recognition and recall...

"Users rely on recognition, not recall; they shouldn't have to remember anything the computer already knows." (page 4).

"Because menus display the full range of potential activities available, users don't have to remember and type command names. Instead, they simply choose from the alternatives presented. The user's task is recognition, not recall. Because they list all available activities, menus let users quickly get an overview (or, for new users, a preview) of what is possible at any given moment." (page 24).

Jakob Nielsen also lists "Use Recognition, not Recall" as one of his top ten usability principles. You can view the complete list by going to...


Donald Norman, in his classic "The Design of Everyday Things" talks about the recognition not recall in numerous places. However, he uses slightly different terminology. He advises designers to rely on knowledge in the world, not knowledge in the head.

An excellent general description of memory and its limitations can be found in the classic paper by George A. Miller, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information". You can find it by going to...


Finally, I came across a mention of the principle in a paper called "RNR in ads" that measured advertisement memory...

The authors had this to say about the subject...

"The experiment showed that a measurement of the number of specific advertisements noted by means of recognition resulted in significantly higher correct claims than a measurement by recall, especially for magazine advertisements. So, when media are to be compared, (proven) recognition is advised for measuring ad memory."

Copyright (c) 2001 Christopher K. O'Leary All Rights Reserved

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Chris O'Leary (cyberdigm@aol.com) is an eBusiness strategist for Cambridge Technology Partners (www.ctp.com).