Chunking is the approach of breaking down information in order for the brain to more easily process new information. Human working memory can only hold a limited amount of information and so splitting it up assists in holding more. When several factors must be kept in mind at the same time, chunking becomes very useful.
When George Miller pioneered research into working memory capacity, a number around 7 (now believed to be closer to 5) was thought to be the limit of think humans can remember with breaking up information being a good memorization technique. The concept of “chunking” came heavily from William Chase and Herbert Simon’s article Perception in chess. Their study showed that chess masters are more likely to remember chess board layouts than novices use to their ability to organise what they know of the game. They used the term “chunk” to describe this organisational process.
Chunking can be applied to many more areas than just chess however. The challenge for a designer in holding an audiences’ attention through sometimes complex systems can lead to a high performance load. To avoid this chunking can be applied to designs. A basic example of this comes from phone numbers, which often are chunked into smaller bits to remember easily. Chunking can also work in nonlinear ways to group together information that is conceptually related.
However it should be noted that chunking information is not a perfect technique in every situation of design. When searching, scanning or analysing information only particular things need to be memorized, so chunking would be pointless. Also chunking should not be used in every aspect of especially simple design (such as basic lists). When used properly though, chunking can certainly lighten the performance load.
Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive psychology, 4(1), 55-81.
Harrod, M. (n.d.). Chunking. Retrieved from Interaction design foundation: http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/chunking.html
Malamed, C. (2009). Chunking information for instructional design. Retrieved from The eLearning coach: http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/chunking-information/
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Retrieved from The music animation machine: http://www.musanim.com/miller1956/