A “10 Things” List is a popular structure for online content and print magazine articles. But why 10? The Arabic number system we use is based on units of 10. We have 10 fingers. These are the answers I’ve most often gotten in response to this question. But when we organize content, is there a better structure to use?
Many experts in how the brain and language work have stated over the last many decades that George Miller’s research from 50 years ago that was published as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” offers a handy way to organize information that maps onto how our brain works. Over the decades there have been many misapplications, over-extensions, and misinterpretations of Miller’s basic findings that there are fairly well defined limits on the number of items we can manipulate while in short term memory. Miller found 5 to 9 items are the standard limits for list item recall. There are other constraints that other researchers have found. This fact doesn’t invalidate Miller’s findings. Neural systems are among the most complex systems in our world. There can be more more than one generalized rule teased from a complex system.
So far there isn’t one that involves the number 10. So convention appears to be the only real determining factor for using the number 10 in top ten lists, ten worst lists, ten things to know about articles, ten new items or products lists. So should you produce or procure ten-based lists for your content needs? Sure. Why not. But you will join a gah-zillion other ten-based lists floating around out there.
Why not make your lists stand out a bit and possibly make them more memorable by finding coherent groupings of your content subject and presenting them as linked sets that can be easily remembered? I can’t think of a single reason not to go with numbers smaller than 10.
My own preference is to combine the memory magic of the number seven plus or minus two with another magic numeric principle hinged on the number four as discussed by researcher Nelson Cowan in his work. The “magic” associated with four of anything is that we can know (rapid enumeration of small numbers of objects) the number of a group of objects instantly if we see a group of four or less things. More than four requires counting.
You don’t want your reader to have to count, you want them to be able to remember your salient points, and you want them to be able to recall examples of each point you make too, if at all possible. So how do you do it? Well logical grouping of the points you make, and keeping those points to as few as possible, to the fewest that are truly central to your topic is the best way. Delivering a good product that hangs together is always better than padding your list to get to 10 components.
Some techniques you might employ to manage weighty lists containing more than 7 – 9 items would be to use sub-groupings. For example if you had a listing of 100 color names you could organize them by their closest primary color, by the ROY G. BIV rainbow schema (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,) by pastels and brights, by how well they render online (web safe colors,) or even by order they are added to languages (if the language names only two colors the two words mean wet/dark and dry/light, if it has three then red is added, and so on.) Clever sub-groupings will help the reader remember groups of details. Experiment and keep track of returning visitors to articles that have incorporated this technique. A successful pairing with bring return visitors and referrals from those return visitors.