“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology. It was published in 1956 in Psychological Review by the cognitive psychologist George A. Miller of Princeton University.
The paper discusses the limitations of short-term memory (viz., working memory – a widely used computational analogy applied to information processing in the human brain). A large corpus of empirical research has demonstrated that human can only hold a small number of items in short-term memory (7±2). This is, for instance, relevant for the memorisation of telephone-numbers. However, the principle has also applications for webdesign and the design of user interfaces – especially for the development of navigation objects. If navigation-menues exceed this “magical number” they become confusing (cognitive overload) and the user interface is no longer intuitive (cf. ease of processing/processing fluency). Processing fluency is the ease with which information is processed. Perceptual fluency is the ease of processing stimuli based on manipulations to perceptual quality (retrieval fluency is the ease with which information can be retrieved from memory). “Chunking” of information is one way to expand this capacity. In cognitive psychology, chunking is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole.