Prospective memory – Behavioural UX

prospective memory behavioural UX

Behavioural Pattern: Prospective memory

User goal: find information/be reminded of information at a later point in time.


Prospective memory is a concept from psychology. It refers to the intention to carry out a task in the future. In addition, it refers to the measures we take to remember that task at the right time or in the right context. [1]

We can see the use of prospective memory when we leave a book by the door to remember taking it with us when we leave. Further, we can see it when using bookmarks in actual books or leave out the present for a friend to wrap it up later. 

Enabling prospective memory in applications

Users also engage prospective memory when working with software applications. [2] For instance, by:


  • flagging an email to reply later
  • setting an alarm before an event
  • leaving documents open on your desktop
  • leaving annotations in an application (e.g. “fix colours”)

Software applications rarely account for prospective memory. Most commonly, it is considered in email providers (by marking email) and task management tools (by enabling comments). 


Enabling prospective memory can be an opportunity to improve your users experience. However, it also comes with it’s fair share of challenges.


Firstly, don’t stand in the way of your users. Don’t “helpfully” rearrange user folders, clean up their notes or close windows when they’ve been idle for a while. Even automatic sorting can destroy the arrangement your users have created for themselves. 

prospective memory ux

Secondly, to positively design for prospective memory you can apply methods enabling reentry. This can help your users remember where they left off after a break. Further, you can enable creating workspaces in more complex applications. Or, special bookmarks equipped with reminders or notifications (e.g. in an event app). 

Either way, I suggest you tread carefully and user test your changes – especially when they might be disruptive like notifications. Take measures to ensure value add.


People often organise themselves by arranging information to find it again at a later point in time. E.g. leaving a book next to the door if they intend to take it somewhere later, marking an email to respond to it later. This mechanic can also be used in applications. By enabling notifications, bookmarks or sticky notes.


Ultimately, considering prospective memory during design can be a great opportunity for a competitive advantage. However, designing for prospective memory might have disruptive effects. If in doubt, you might want to consider helping less and user testing your application.