Recognition and Recall

2020-01-27

I recently came across the concept of recognition-based user interfaces and recall-based user interfaces.

Where a recognition-based interface would present the user with a menu of available options, a recall-based interface would expect the user to remember the behaviour to trigger the option without a visual cue. There’s a clear analogy here in typical GUIs (recognition) versus typical CLIs (recall).

While recall interfaces take more effort to learn, they’re more efficient (See: power users of GUI applications learn key bindings, a recall feature).


An interesting piece of how a lot of people interact with their computers: Cmd+Tab (or Alt+Tab, or whatever) for application switching.

This is an interesting hybrid of recognition and recall: You may remember that the last application you used is just one press away, but it will likely take you a bit more work to get to, say, 1Password. If you don’t recall how many taps away the application you want is, you’re setting up an interactive loop with your computer: you press buttons, watch the result, process visual input, and press more buttons.

%3 fingers fingers eyes eyes fingers->eyes brain brain eyes->brain brain->fingers

I use a tool called Hammerspoon to create a few keybindings to mostly eliminate this recognition-based loop from my day-to-day computer usage. Each application that I commonly use is bound to its own (recall-based) key chord:

appbindings.setup({"cmd", "ctrl"}, {
  [1] = "com.googlecode.iterm2",
  [2] = "com.apple.Music",
  [3] = "com.brave.Browser",
  [4] = "com.tinyspeck.slackmacgap",
  [5] = "org.gnu.Emacs",
  [6] = "com.apple.iChat",
  [7] = nil,
  [8] = "com.microsoft.vscode",
  [9] = nil,
})

This saves me, I don’t know, a quarter of second about a hundred times a day. Little things add up, especially in the middle of focused thought.