Do We Manage Information Efficiently?
“As the art of reading (after a certain stage in one’s education) is the art of skipping, so the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
—William James (in The Principles of Psychology)
Most high-tech organizations produce thousands of pages of documentation for their products. We know that users only refer to a small fraction of the information. Are we asking our users to skip thousands of pages of information that is of no value to them just to find a few nuggets that they need?
Information is an imprecise term, a subjective concept that can be defined, as we shall see, only when you know who is conversing and in what context. Information managers, a priori, are preoccupied with information-how could it be otherwise? So for all of us the term “information” is heavily laden with positive value. As such, information is “good,” the absence of information is negative, “bad.” But is this reasonable?
Information and ideas pass through our minds and either they leave a trace or they do not. In either case, there is something insubstantial about these ideas, except when we experience an overload and need an aspirin. However, when we must collect, evaluate, store, and provide a means of access for others, we quickly come to see that information has material qualities-it costs. For the originator, the costs may include worker time, efforts to shape and model the content, warehousing the content, and creating and maintaining the access and delivery mechanisms. For the customer, costs may include customer time, the expenditure of emotional (motivational) energy while seeking information, and subscribing to access mechanisms.
In 1929, the physicist Leo Szilard asked what the cost would be for knowing the location of one molecule of a gas in a container (The User Illusion, p. 23). His method was proposing yes/no questions such as, “is the molecule to the left or right of me?” When we know that “left” is the answer, we discard “right,” the wrong answer. It doesn’t tell us where the molecule is, it tells us only where the molecule is not. And we’re not interested in that information, so it’s natural to discard it. Evaluating and discarding wrong answers is the “cost.”
In the given instance, the “wrong” answer doesn’t seem like much to discard, the cost is negligible. But when customers search for an answer to a real question, they usually sift through many wrong answers before they arrive at the right one. All of the wrong answers are discarded, but they cost something to obtain, to record, to access, to judge, and then discard. For large collections of information, the costs can be very high, particularly when we take the supermarket approach-stocking everything that a customer might want, even very slow sellers that few customers buy, just to get them in the store to buy other items. And at the checkout counter, as in many web home pages, we tempt customers to make impulse purchases not related to their purpose in shopping. If our customers are forced to repeat the process of sifting through all of the information created by the originator, the value of the message is lessened for them.
Two questions present themselves for consideration:
1. How can we reduce the amount of information we must store?
2. How can a customer arrive at a correct answer more economically?
The value of information for the customer resides in what items of relevance get communicated, not in the amount of information stored. So the value of the content in a communication resides in all the information that could have been part of the actual message but wasn’t. That means the value of a message, its complexity and depth, is measured by the work done by the originator in ordering and forming it. The originator, not the customer, will have discarded irrelevant information.
One of the reasons that technical writers create so much text is that they try to explicitly document all of the information they have on a subject without regard for what their users already know. Is there a better way?
In 1862, Victor Hugo had completed Les Misérables at the cost of an enormous expenditure of energy. While it was at the printer, he left Paris to recuperate and get away from the pressures of his wishes for success. However, after the publication date, he couldn’t resist inquiring about how the book had been received. So he sent the following communication to his publisher-“?”-a single character. The publisher replied, also with a single character-“!” Hugo rejoiced at his success.
We see that the meaning of the exchange was given by the context of the exchange-what both parties knew of the situation and each other-not the amount of information transmitted. This briefest of communications was the result of discarding information. What remained in the communication was sufficient to refer to the information discarded. This explicitly discarded information Tor Nørretranders has called exformation (The User Illusion, p. 92), at last giving us a word to represent the discarded information which gives meaning to what is communicated.
Exformation refers to the mental work we do to communicate. When we rely only on explicit communication, we are required to transmit large amounts of information. But as we have seen, the whole point of explicit communication is to refer to something implicit. We can now say that a message has depth and value in proportion to the quantity of exformation it contains. Only someone who knows the context in which the information has been transmitted can gauge the amount of exformation in the message.
Some information, such as a circle, appears out of context with no detail to tell us if it represents a flat plane or a sphere. We can’t know more about it than the fact that it’s a circle.
We can define the circle by adding details: color, size, texture, surface markings. These evoke the meaning and let us identify it. If we already know the thing, previously have seen an example, these cues are enough. We recognize a baseball, a soccer ball, a basketball, a bowling ball.
Adding detail is the usual approach taken to make information meaningful. It’s one reason why information repositories tend to increase in size over time, sometimes exponentially. However, there is another way to define the circle. We can add context.
Here we’ve added context by showing athletes performing their sport, but we have left the circle blank. We see the baseball player and know the circle is a baseball, the soccer player kneeing a soccer ball, the bowler about to launch a bowling ball, the basketball player making a jump shot. If we were writing about one of these sports, and the reader came to the text expecting information about the sport, we could just say “ball” and the particular type of ball would be known.
The concept of exformation makes explicit why the evoking of the reader’s prior knowledge is such a necessary and powerful means of making information accessible to learning. It also makes clear why knowing your audience can be the most powerful means of minimizing the information you must manage. From our discussion we see that the wisdom to create exformation resides in managers, editors, and writers, not technology. Of course this is true only to the extent that the managers, editors, and writers are familiar with the needs and knowledge base of the users and, as they create content, are willing to persistently focus on the situation of use. The more we know about the users, the more we ask what inner resources they bring to the situation in which they require information, the more we stress decision-making activity rather than information consumption, the more exformation we can create.
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