User Diet Part 1: Information Starvation
Obviously, restricting information to the essentials is seen as important. We've all had those test questions in grammar school which give extraneous information to throw off would-be child prodigies. Designing interfaces which give too much extra information can be like a misleading question.
You've probably heard about the magic number 7 plus or minus 2. This is the amount of "spaces" that people have in short term memory to hold ideas. This is, for example, why United States phone numbers have only 7 main digits, and why it's so difficult to remember a credit card number. Of course, it's not nearly that simple. Some ideas, like names can be stored as one space, whereas if the letters in a name like Samantha were mixed around, and you had to memorize them all, it gets much more difficult. Also, some ideas, like relationships between operations in a series of equations are more difficult to remember. Researchers put the limit for these at somewhere between 3 and 5 interrelated operations; This would be problems like "Mary is older than Tom. Jack is younger than Mary. Bill was born when Mary was 5 and Tom was 7... you get the idea"
These limits of information digestion rates may be catching up with us. A recent study published by the Royal Economic Society in England found that the more students used computers at home and at school, the more poorly they performed in math and reading tests. Their conclusion was:
"Despite numerous claims by politicians and software vendors to the contrary, the evidence so far suggests that computer use in schools does not seem to contribute substantially to students' learning of basic skills such as math or reading."
Where previously, students were exposed to a very focused lecture or problem as a class, more personalized computer-based teaching is overloading them with too many different types of information. With access to thousands of competing problem solving styles online and through educational software, it's no wonder they're having trouble figuring out which ones to use.
Another emerging usergroup where information limiting can make a difference is Low-Literacy users. These users can read, but with some difficulty, which makes the way they interact with a webpage, menu, or newspaper much different than the average user. These people aren't just undereducated; Refugees, recent immigrants, tourists in foreign countries, and even children can exhibit the behaviors that typify a low-literacy user. An estimated 48% of the U.S. population has low literacy, and the rest of the world is probably similarly composed. What can you do to reach them? It turns out, limiting information is a big part, and most of the other suggestions will help other users as well:
Prioritize information -- Reading is difficult, so make sure that important information is served first.
Design is about making objects, and making experiences, and making emotions happen. But some of the most important objects and tools we make are about extracting, processing, and presenting information. Sometimes going lean can help users make the most of that information. Sometimes, though, the reverse is true. Tune in tomorrow when we talk about how a little too much information can go a long way.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team