Let’s Talk About: Spatial Memory

This is a post about Spatial Memory and how I utilise it to enable a great working environment. It’s part of the Let’s Talk About series. I am by no means an expert on brain functions, and what works for me may not work for you, particularly considering everyone works best in different environments.

When I was in secondary school, I made a decision to study Technical Graphics because I was told that if I became good enough at it I could draw anything with accuracy (given the dimensions). With practise, I eventually made it to that level of finesse. In order to progress at technical drawing, it’s important to be able to visualise what you intend on drawing from many angles. As it happens, visualisation is one of a handful of known good methods of memory recall. It is much easier to navigate a road you’ve been on before, because you can recognise that it’s the type of road you’ve seen before, and you can recall defects in that particular road. This is the same with user interfaces which follow standards (as opposed to the Wild West of doing whatever you feel like because it looks cool)


There is no excuse for this

By employing good layout and human interaction design, you can learn how to navigate an application without looking at it. This is easiest when buttons don’t move around. This moves the behaviour of using the application from the knowledge zone to the skill zone. These are two of the three behavioural zones of interaction (also known as the skill-, rule-, knowledge-behaviour classification system .

The more static items become the more familiar they are, this enables us to perform these tasks subconsciously, or automatically. By applying this knowledge to your workspace or working environment, you can begin to navigate your environment autonomously. This moves changing application, or finding information, from an active task to a passive task. This frees up time to think about the important stuff; like whether it’s too soon to have another coffee!

I currently have my work environment set up with two widescreen monitors turned 90degrees, side by side, and a widescreen laptop monitor. This is occasionally called a plp setup, or portrait, landscape, portrait. This gives me between three and four spaces which I can utilise. By optimising for spacial memory, and because I only use a handful of applications, I can organise these in such a way that I can achieve a skill centric environment. Even if the applications on those screens are rarely used, the positional knowledge remains, and thus results in working more effectively.

I currently have my workspace set up as Sublime Text 3, Chrome, and one of {eclipse, emails, command window, vm}. Unfortunately, I need the email program open all the time when I’m in work, since it’s part of the culture there despite email being an obsolete technology. I also use a custom launcher utility called Launchy, which I highly recommend (if you’re using a mac you should check out Alfred instead.

These tools work well for me, but may not work for you. What do you use to improve your workflow?


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