Recognition rather than Recall

Behavioral Design: Recognition Rather Than Recall

What are Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics? After analysing usability research, UX expert Jakob Nielsen created suggestions for user interface design that increase product usability and user experience. 

The Usability Heuristics use high-level principles to identify usability issues in a design. They’re timeless, even in an ever-changing digital context, as they can be applied across any interface or design style. Nielsen's standards have become a cornerstone of UX and UI design, introduced early in design education and repeatedly revisited throughout a designer's career.

The Basic Idea

Recognition rather than recall is when we’re able to quickly make a decision based on intuition, rather than having to remember the best course of action from memory. When applying the concept to influence human decision-making or solve a problem, policy makers or researchers can leverage heuristics that serve as quick mental cues.

Unlike recall, which mainly requires conscious recollection, recognition involves familiarity or avoidance of uncertainty, and is often driven by a cognitive bias.

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Key Terms

Heuristic: A mental cue that helps people to make quicker decisions without explicit reference to long-term memory.

Cognitive bias: A subjective perception of reality that can result in irrational choice.

Recall: Conscious remembering of a past event.

Recognition: Identifying the right option or course of action without having to remember it from the past or consciously applying a pre-determined rule. 

The Behavior Behind the Design

The Ambiguity Effect 

Between an ambiguous and unambiguous option, people often choose the former because they have a natural cognitive bias against uncertainty. The ambiguity effect explains why brands provide as much clarity and guidance as possible about their products – to help consumers make informed shopping decisions.

However, with recognition rather than recall, designers can engineer ambiguity into behavioral options to enable spontaneous interactions, decisions, or selections that don’t require remembering facts or predefined rules.1


Suggestibility is the degree to which an individual’s perception of reality and resulting behavior are influenced by suggestive cues, such as from a researcher or interviewer, rather than based on an accurate recollection of the past.2

In a digital landscape, we’re often influenced by figures of authority, whether this messaging comes in the form of celebrity influencers or an overly-helpful paperclip caricature. By making certain choices more salient to viewers, designers can increase the chances of an option being selected. This could include making a Sale button front and centre on the home page of a retailer, or ensuring breaking news uses sufficient descriptive language to convey a crisis.

The Levels of Processing Effect

According to the levels of processing effect, we retain information better by encoding it on a deeper level by forming relatable associations.3 Instead of trying to memorize large blocks of text through repetitive reading, learners associate the new information with recognizable mental images or quick facts that are easier to track in memory. Semantically-linking information this way can enhance teaching and learning outcomes. 

Designers may try to encode information on a deeper level for their users by tying it to well-known concepts, rather than delivering it without any connection to outside context. 

Mere Exposure Effect

The mere exposure effect (MEE) is the increased preference of an option (stimuli) after repeated exposure to the option.4

Plenty of lexical decision or perceptual identification experiments have shown that, under the effect, people may quickly recognize something they like without a conscious recollection of having seen it in the past. MEE occurs due to our natural bias toward what’s familiar rather than uncertain, and is reinforced by the need to make quick choices from multiple day-to-day options. 

Due to the mere exposure effect, designers will use language and images that are typically used to convey particular actions or ideas. The classic icon for a phone may no longer look like the phones we often use today, but users are able to immediately recognize the function behind it.   

Case Studies

Stimulating Sick Children’s Play With Open-Ended Game Design

In a 2018 conference, Boon et al. proposed “Stickz,” an innovative game design for hospitalized children.1 Their research showed that less structured games that don’t require memorizing pre-set rules encourage spontaneous play can stimulate exercise in kids while receiving treatment.

The Game Concept: During play, children working with a variety of large branch-shaped objects used their imagination rather than explicit memory to build interesting things.

Ambiguity in Design: Ambiguous design allowed the children to interpret the branch-shaped objects as any random thing they’d effortlessly recognize in their living environment, from toy guns to walking sticks. There were no preset game play rules to remember, enabling the use of Stickz for various random activities like building a hut or sorting colors.

Behavioral design objectives achieved: Increased participation due to open-ended game design that required less mental effort. Also, activities involved creativity, running around, carrying objects, and interactions essential for the minors’ mental and physical development during treatment.

Recognition Rather Than Recall in User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) Design

According to numerous consumer studies, most people take little time and mental effort to compare and choose products from the multiple options they encounter.4 It’s why many shoppers keep going back to familiar brands that they can recognize without much thought, while avoiding lesser known options.

By infusing familiarity into UX and US designs, product designers can increase the chances of new and existing customers choosing their brands over others.

For example, the mere exposure effect can benefit a newly-launched e-commerce website that sticks to standard navigation and ordering processes, from searching and adding items to cart, to checkout and payment. Thanks to the consistent UX and UI design, its new users wouldn’t have to re-learn and memorize new ways of online shopping.  


  1. Boon, B., Stappers, P.J., & Rozendaal, M. (2018, June). Ambiguity and Open-Endedness in Behavioural Design. Design as a catalyst for change - DRS International Conference 2018. Retrieved September 11, 2023 from
  2. Hamblett, S. (2013, November 27). Suggestibility’s Strong Influence on Behavior. Colby College. Retrieved September 11, 2023 from
  3. Ragland, J.D. et al. (2003, December 1). Levels-Of-Processing Effect on Word Recognition in Schizophrenia. Biol Psychiatry. 54(11), 1154–1161. doi: 10.1016/s0006-3223(03)00235-x
  4. Lee, A.Y. (1994).The Mere Exposure Effect: Is It a Mere Case of Misattribution? NA - Advances in Consumer Research. (21), 270-275. Retrieved September 11, 2023 from

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