Archive for August 2008

Opportunity Overload

August 26, 2008

Information overload has been with us since the dawn of electronic media. According to McLuhan’s theories (and Robert Logan’s recent enhancements to media theory), when we humans overextend a communications channel, we create a new one.  We create one commensurate with the increased volume and complexity of content that our culture generates. When we overwhelmed the capacity of radio and television (and print), the Internet emerged to expand our ability to communicate, globally.

So each new media “channel” expands our scope and matches the developing complexity of communication. As we adapt and learn the new media channel, our cognitive capacity – trained as it was from prior media eras – experience cognitive infoload.

As the online experience consumes more of our attention and with it our time, all of us notice the acceleration of overload. And with very little guidance from research, we are left with a range of practical time-management options from the Pickle Jar to scheduling your email. But none of these address the fact of information overload, which threatens to significantly diminish the value of the web and email. As demonstrated by the situation of too many choices.

Jared Spool once posted (and podcasted) an interview with Barry Schwartz where they discuss his book and the line of research into “choice overload,” which starts off with the Iyengar and Leeper Jam Study:

“… that showed when you present 30 flavors of jam at a gourmet food store, you get more interest but less purchasing than when you only show six flavors of jam. All of a sudden, it became an issue, or at least a possibility, that adding options could actually decrease the likelihood that people would actually choose any of them. More and more, because of that study, people have actually tried to study it in the wild, in the field, by getting companies to vary the variety that they offer and tracking both purchasing and also satisfaction. So that’s starting to happen, but there are not very many papers that are actually published on that. This whole line of work is only about five years old.”

There may be a common phenomenon underlying choice and information overload. Neither of these surfeits of stuff are problematic unless we’re interested, unless there’s an opportunity. Since information is neutral until deemed interesting, information overload is not problematic until we admit ever-larger boundaries of interest and attention. When we overwhelm short term memory and task attention, we’re forced to stop and change the focus of attention. The same with choice – I don’t care whether there are 5 jams or 30 unless I really want jam. Otherwise, like the overload of celebrity stories in the public media, the overload is easy to ignore.

Once we evaluate email and user experience with the concept of opportunity overload, the angle of insight shifts from technology itself to the idea of value. While 90% or more of all my email I could ignore, I also have extraordinary opportunities presented by way of this communication channel. Not only most of my consulting projects, but collaborations, new tools, great ideas to work with, answers to questions I did not think to pose. Its opportunity “push,” with the Web as opportunity “pull,” a nightmare of opportunity overwhelm if you let it.

As a research issue this interests me as it entails hermeneutics (individually and not externally interpreted) and economics (as in the cost/value of opportunity). We attend to the extent we are emotionally engaged with the perceived value of the opportunity represented by a choice (a product or a message in an email). But attention is only the intial draw. There are significant cognitive requirements demanded in processing the value (what is this worth to me? How cool is that?) and choice (Which one do I want, or is it worth my time to evaluate further?).

To finally make a decision may require additional learning (which one really is better? do I know enough to choose this opportunity? What are the costs in time and lost business/opportunity?). It may require communication (who should I ask about this? Wouldn’t Nick want to know about this?) Next thing we know, the day is gone!

So nobody except Miles the Marketer seems to be onto opportunity overload. (And Miles means to make you money, and I don’t, so go there if you want marketing opportunities!)

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Valuing tech vs. valuing learning

August 19, 2008

When will the computer finally recede into the ubiquitous background as promised by Don Norman a decade ago? Instead, educational reform is grasping at technology as the innovation, bringing technology front and center, as you have pointed out here. But how do we expect students even younger than yours Sam, such as inner city high school students, to switch to an online pedagogy and self-educate with discipline?

It is the individual that chooses to self-educate – the tech are tools, not the stuff of learning itself. I’m not as sanguine about the role of interactive tech per se in the classroom, even though two heavy hitters in innovation (Clay Christensen) and organizational learning (John Seely Brown, blogged here) have recently weighed in with tech-oriented reform promises.

Christensen says “For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive innovation shows us a way forward.”

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served — people we call non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming education.

There are a few problems with Clay’s innovation theory as applied to education. I am a big fan of Innovator’s Dilemma, and have written up RPV as serious business theory in “real” articles, not blogs. But my issue with disruptive innovation in education – is that the problem is NOT with students, or school systems as such. It is socio-economic, cultural, and systemic – a complex system, not a market of users or consumers. Disrutpive innovation owes something to the concept of early adopters predicting the trend. But in education, the early adopters are the self-educators who workaround the system. We can pick up and use anything, but that doesn’t mean other students should use the tech tools I did to self-educate. Example: Long before the Internets, after exhausting the simple lessons in 5th grade, I would ask to leave the class and sit in the hallway and read the Britannicas.

And which students get to fail while the system tries to “go disruptive” and falls even further behind in the tyranny of state school district measures? A couple of years worth of classes before they get it right? Christensen’s innovation theory says large incumbent firms are literally unable to innovate in this way. But has he ever seen charter schools in real “urban” districts? These attempts at innovation lead to outsourcing (like to Sylvan), which does no good, and leaves “no learning behind” for others to bring forward as an innovation.

Take a look at Dayton, Ohio. Patricia started one of the Gates schools (she’s not teaching there or anywhere in a system anymore). The program was primarily problem-based, no issue with that. But self-motivated, self-direct learning kids excel at this already, regardless of technology.  The charter schools in Dayton are (not to put too fine a point on it) total failures. The Gates program? Mixed – the self-motivated always do well, the others make teachers do twice the work they normally do, which is already a lot more than you can imagine.  “It won’t change until society values education” Patricia says “It’s so much government cheese.”

Interaction flow or Activity flow?

August 12, 2008

Boxes and Arrows is a great source for the publication of in-depth discussions of ideas and concepts emerging in the user experience community. Originally more of an information architects how-to, nuts & bolts go-to service, it has grown into a true eJournal with good editorial review and a “real” community of readers that know each other (supra-virtual?). EiC Christina Wodtke and editor Austin Govella have done a great job of encouraging publications beyond the expected scope in the IA readership.

A new, well-cited article by (another sharp alumnus of Calgary’s nForm shop) Trevor van Gorp –  Design for Emotion and Flow – brought a raft of comments related to designing for flow and to enhance positive emotional response in an interactive experience. Trevor gives a guidelines for design based on his research and the classical model from Csikszentmihalyi:

Flow channel

Flow channel

1. A clear goal… The user navigates to accomplish a task, like seeking information on a particular topic or surfing for fun. This is an evolving goal, dependent on the options presented to the user and aided by logical information architecture, intuitive navigation, effective wayfinding and clear options for proceeding like information scent, breadcrumbs, meaningful labels, clear page titles, etc.

2. With immediate feedback on the success of attempts to reach that goal… The user receives quick, sensory feedback in the form of a visual shift and/or sound from links, buttons, menus, or other navigation items.

3. Presented as a challenge that you have the skills to handle. Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow in the context of user experience was debated between designing flow into the experience, and deisgning to optimize the flow as an end in itself.
“The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding.”

Andy Polaine, who’s doctoral research was also on this topic, described another path toward interactive flow:

“The main point here is that interaction designers can encourage this self-contained activity, the intrinsically rewarding aspect unrelated to future benefit through the design of interactions and interfaces that are rewarding in themselves to use. Interfaces that are satisfying in their own right encourage users to play with them and explore them further, which means they learn them without thinking about learning them.”

My notion of facilitating flow in interactive experience design leans more toward optimizing the experience of a real world activity or a whole system. In most of my design challenges, for Redesign Research anyway, we are aiming to design a total service to support a professional or intellectual activity of some sort. Consumer or discretionary experiences that may lend themselves to interaction for the sake of its own enjoyment, or a gaming-type pursuit experience.

In professional activity we might consider several questions relevant to optimizing their cognitive flow, such as:

How is individual flow affected when multiple players are involved? (For example, you need a critical mass to make a multiplayer game, or Second Life, compelling enough to flow – there are tradeoffs between individual and group experience of flow).

How about the world beyond interactivity, which is where work and play live for most people?

Where is the focal experience of the flow? Where is it experienced?

Is it in the interactive experience or in the activity that the interaction supports?

Consider the design requirements for medical decision making – the flow is happening in the consult room, not in the information display. The physician, nurse, order clerk, pharmacist are part of a complex, continual loop-closing communications feedback system. The attempt to design-in flow states to an interactive experience could be counter-productive to total flow, which requires maintaining context awareness, status updates, attention cues to change in patient state, and providing brief-but-accurate communications at the time and point of need. Yes, flow could be improved. But a UX, designed in relative isolation from the total system, might over-flow the information display and sub-optimize the activity.  Is this situation amenable to design for flow?

Trade-offs. There might also be multiple interactions involved that trade-off “more flow” or enjoyable challenge in one state versus more radical efficiency in another.

Take an eBook reader for example (a project I just finished). If an eBook vendor designs their platform for the purpose of maximizing reading flow while online, they may inlcude features or navigation that impedes the flow state of the researcher, who is attempting to understand a thread of ideas across a number of publications (common task), or who is maximizing the number of references to an idea by finding all the citations in and across books.

Flow is a good example of a classical concept that has been retrieved for adaptation in a pragmatic design context, and may have a lot to offer practitioners. But we can also see where Flow Theory becomes weak – other theories (whole system) may require us to expand the flow theory to accommodate it. Is Flow scalable? Should we keep interpreting Csikszentmihalyi or should we start to make our own observations about interaction flow and extend the aging theory of flow for other domains?

JSB advocates Slow Learning at Strategy 08

August 2, 2008

Not that he calls it that, but I do. Think “Slow Food of Learning.” Here’s the segue. At his recent presentation at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy conference, John Seely Brown frames new ways of envisioning institutional architectures. As a longtime advocate of rethinking the contemporary organization, he asks how we might deploy emerging adaptations of social network technology to fundamentally change how we learn in organizations and educational systems. He’s talking Big Picture redesign of fundamental assumptions and concepts in and of organization and how we learn together.

JSB builds the platform for the network learning model. Social co-construction of knowledge, enabled by social computing, is already changing the infrastructures of organizations. Informal education networks have already been moving toward a new model. About mid-way through his presentation (see video) he advocates moving institutional education toward this model.

One basis for the shift is that traditional institutional warrants of authority are less meaningful in a world where value is being created by people in ad hoc community networks of interest. Both institutional and organizational learning will shift due to these trends. That students will workaround their institutions, find interest groups around their interests, and learn the necessary skills to satisfy the requirements for projects that nurture their projects, their learning needs, and far-reaching dreams.

This could happen. Probably not in America. (Maybe in India?  For a real scare, see the Globe and Mail’s recent article: If the schools don’t cut it, build your own.) “Why not” in America? That’s another cultural story too long to tell here, but it suffices to note that we have nurtured a couple of generations to want what the learning gives you, not the learning itself. People actually want “the degree” as an instrumental (explicit) warrant, purely “in order to.”

Patricia Kambitsch describes a program called Slow Learning, invented about 4 years ago after her experiences with co-creating the Dayton Early College Academy (a Gates Foundation project) in inner-city Dayton. What she realized was that students remain locked into the institutional warrants by mandate, and that after a decade of conventional learning, students can start to play a new game, but they face very real obstacles. Learning-to-learn requires more than new institutional architectures. It requires personal commitment beyond that supportable by culture and neighborhood. It means a (we think) permanent change of consciousness, and cultural support.

We identified a different target audience than students – mid-career adults – who often believe they need to earn another conventional degree when they decide to change career paths. Slow Learning was born from the frustration of watching our highly educated friends chase the “institutional warrant.” Especially for creative careers, when, in mid-career, it doesn’t actually MATTER whether you have a warrant. You just need to be part of the network of practitioners that learning happens in. Your warrant is that you are already known to othe practitioners, which is what you get after the degree anyway. (See some 2007 posts, such as at College is a Great Place to Learn – So What?)

So JSB is describing a theory of institutional workaround and personal learning paths that sounds a lot like community learning models, or even the Union Institute (which requires learning internships in a tutorial framework).  But to cut to the simple, here’s what Kambitsch says:

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

Sure, there’s a role for online communities and Internet-accessible courseware. But these are just enablers. Where JSB and we part ways is that community learning is largely situated and place-based. (That’s why there was a Bauhaus and a “Frankfurt School”). You cannot place yourself in a (creative or intellectual) community solely by Facebook networking. I believe real F2F engagement with your mentors is central to social learning.

Organizational learning also requires the commitment of personal presence, I believe. Virtual presence only goes so far. We are still human beings, blessed with a wide range of sensing, thinking, intuitive, and sensemaking systems and organs. Virtual life excludes most of these, thereby excluding the types of learning necessary to shift self-reflection away from the habitus of abstracting (online, reading, and typing).  To create new roles for ourselves, we literally must “act” those roles. That’s where our beginners’s mind unlocks new ways of knowing we would never find by engaging in any types of online learning activity.

Patricia is not a JSB, she mostly publishes memoirs and satire, and convenes participatory arts and writing events. I am the more abstract one in the team, and have a paper at this year’s Participatory Design conference that deepens some of John’s other ideas about socializing organizational learning practices. These ideas are not institutionally warranted, yet. But perhaps, instead, we might co-create a Learning Lab with interested parties who also see this as a possible vision.