The doorway effect

Updated Dec 23, 2021

You need to do a task in one of the apps on your phone. You unlock the device to begin. Once you are in, you stare at the screen because you have just forgot what you needed.

This is the location updating effect, or the doorway effect, that works in a virtual environment, too. Virtual environment reasonably simulates the concept of navigating the space: "Open site", "Enter", "Go back". This model helps our consciousness adapt but also brings known "bugs". Things get more complicated because of rich surroundings in applications.

[...] Simply walking through a doorway causes forgetting (the location updating effect). [...] This generates the intriguing hypothesis that the effect may be demonstrated in participants who simply imagine walking through a doorway.

Memory. 2016

In the example above, there are two common scenarios. In the first one, you go back to the previous step to remember the task. In the second one, your disarmed attention is grabbed by attractive surroundings: apps, badges, toasts. You start wandering spaces until you realize the mission is failed.

Example task: Set up an alarm (iOS 15):

Unlock deviceLock ScreenNotifications
Locate Clock appHome ScreenNotifications, other apps
Locate Alarm tabClock appLast tab opened, 3 other tabs

Even though we can't do much about the effect itself, we can shorten the journey or help recover. The virtual environment is flexible: we can portal to a different place, change the type of interaction, or provide clues. The following patterns help us accomplish the goals.

Voice commands. Long-press the Lock button (iOS 15), dictate the command. Call default commands or use custom ones created in the Shortcuts app. This is powerful for repeating tasks but takes time to set up. Not suitable for every environment.

Text commands. Command line with auto-completion and typeahead. Technologies moved away from text-based interfaces towards a more intuitive experience, introducing graphical and touch interfaces. Today we use an upgraded version, a Command Bar that helps reach things quicker avoiding context switches. Though, the pattern is an afterthought on phones. "Type to Siri", the accessibility feature in iOS 15, is the most interesting.

Inline commands. "Deliver Quietly" (Notifications, iOS 15). Skip the travel to a different part of the system and do the task contextually.

Deep links. "◀ {PrevApp}" (Top bar, iOS 15). Quickly recover after multi-tasking.

Automation. Automate and don't interact. If you can't automate the whole task, automate a part of it: many tools today implement bulk actions and use ML for this purpose.