Designs for digital reminder systems to help us remember

The grocery list. That dentist appointment yesterday. The car keys. Where the car is parked. The name of someone just introduced. Work-out clothes for that after-work class.

These items share one common feature: they are the kinds of things some of us, if not most of us, often forget, no matter how hard we try to remember them.

Robin Brewer, Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI), understands. She really understands -- because she has studied this topic, along with the digital and personal reminder systems people employ to help them remember what they may forget. 

Brewer itemized the findings of her study in her paper, “How to Remember What to Remember: Exploring Possibilities for Digital Reminder Systems,” published in the September 2017 issue of Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.

Brewer also recently presented this research at an UbiComp conference. 

“We are seeing a rise in digital reminder systems in different formats, such as intelligent speaker systems – Amazon’s Echo, or built-in mobile assistants like Siri,” she says. 

“Each of these systems has the potential to help people, especially those with memory and cognitive impairments, to remember information. But they currently are used only for very basic types of memory needs. I wanted to understand how we can push the limits of what existing memory aids can do.”

Brewer, along with collaborators Merrie Morris and Sian Lindley of Microsoft Research, employed a survey and a one-week diary for the study. 

Results showed that current digital time- and location-based reminder systems are not sophisticated enough to support people’s reminder needs. It also illustrated the “importance of information learned in conversation, and routines and behavior patterns, to remember.” 

People still use paper lists and calendars, Brewer said, but the rise in the number and use of digital reminder systems encouraged more focus by researchers on these devices.

Various researchers have described both “prospective” and “retrospective” types of memory in their studies, and have observed overall that “reminders are most effective when they link the cue for remembering to the intended behavior,” the study states.

So, why is it important to remember? The study found remembering has a great deal to do with social and psychological factors, such as developing relationships, reminiscing, and sharing knowledge. 

In conclusion, the study emphasized that digital reminder systems help people by reminding them to do future actions – but also by reminding them of information acquired in the past. This offers new opportunities for digital systems, Brewer says.  

The full text of the paper is available here.

Posted November 2, 2017