What we do for a living – we being the field of people who develop information for others to consume – is educate people. We may teach them about the proper way to use our products, complete their vacation form, use that machine correctly, why they should buy our products, or many other things. But at the core, we educate people by giving them information they didn’t have before.
Driving on the left
I was thinking about this as I was driving to the Author-it office in Auckland the other day. I’m visiting New Zealand from the US and driving is a constantly attentive activity for me here. As with any attentive process, I can’t do anything but focus on driving because I’m on the wrong side of the car driving on the wrong side of the road. All my instincts, if you will, are completely wrong.
For most of us, by the time we’re 4 or 5, we’ve learned the proper side of the car and the road at such a level that we don’t think about it any more. We know what side of the car to get in, it’s instinct. This is called preattentive. It’s like muscle memory – you don’t think about it, it just happens.
This is very useful to us because it lets us (humans) function in the world. If we had to think about everything – walking, reaching for a cup, etc – then we couldn’t cope. When we’re learning something new, it’s attentive until we’ve mastered it and then it slips into the preattentive areas.
It’s all wrong
So what happens when you move a preattentive activity back to an attentive activity? You put your user under a lot of stress. Our brains want to function at that preattentive level for this activity and we’re forcing it to work at an attentive level.
We’re under a cognitive load. The entire activity has to be thought out at all times while our brain fights us, trying to drop back to the easier preattentive level. Our entire attention is taken with it. Cognitively, it’s really hard. Really hard.
This is where those we educate get cranky. They complain that it’s too hard, they don’t like it, and they don’t want to do it. It’s true for them: it is hard and their brains do hurt.
So how do we help?
Part of our job is to reduce the cognitive load for our users as we educate. We are more successful if our users don’t have the extra effort of trying to find what they’re looking for or if the information they need is right in front of them as they need it. Think of us as carrying the load for our users.
One of the ways we can carry that load is to not make our users stop their task and go find the information they want. I’ve read studies that show up to 30% of the day for knowledge workers is spent just trying to find the right information.
Where’s the metadata?
Metadata is lovely but it means you’re probably putting the burden on your overloaded user to go find what s/he needs. They are already unhappy because they don’t know something–why are you now forcing them to play Guess Our Metadata? There have to be better ways to reduce cognitive loads.
What are you doing to help? What have you tried that made a difference? Where are you not helping and the users are complaining?By Sharon Burton