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Friday, Oct. 29, 2004 at 3:53 pm

Debunking Miller’s Magic 7

By Bryan Eisenberg
October 29th, 2004

George A. Miller penned a research paper in 1956, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” It was groundbreaking in its time. In it, Miller hypothesized the human working memory can hold up to seven bits of information, plus or minus two, at once. Often referred to as “Miller’s Magic 7,” that theory is the basis of many Web page design decisions. Below, some modern day extrapolations and design conclusions rooted in Miller’s research:

  • Give users only seven links (choices) in the active window.
  • Give users only seven items on the menu bar.
  • Give users only seven tabs at the top of a Web site page.
  • Give users only seven items in a pull-down menu.
  • Give users only seven items on a bulleted list.

Many advances have been made in understanding human memory since 1956. Why does Miller’s Magic 7 survive in light of current science? We can’t concede that maximizing this informational processing “capacity” is necessary on a Web site.

I want to offer a more current and commonsensical approach to these design element “conclusions.” No designer should be bound by a meaningless number rooted in dusty science.

The Boring Giants, Miller’s Laws’ Biggest Offenders

While studying the 16 top-selling Web sites recently, we wondered, “What do these sites all have in common?”

Continue reading my column at ClickZ…

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Bryan Eisenberg, founder of FutureNow, is a professional marketing speaker and the co-author of New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books Call to Action and Waiting For Your Cat to Bark and Always Be Testing. You can friend him on Facebook or Twitter.

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