Complexity or poor attention?


Information designers should be aware of how communication is changing and how these changes can impact their decisions when translating content to improve understanding.

Yes, we do live in a complex world. Yes, the constant production of information and the instant access to it also contribute to that complexity. But, are our everyday problems actually more complex than ever or is this the result of how we perceive them rather than how they really are? Many factors seem to be contributing to perceiving things differently.

24/7 Connectivity: We are expected not only to be connected but also to be available all the time. This makes the perception of time shorter and more fragmented. I recently learnt of a study conducted back in 2008* to explore people’s busyness and reported lack of time: Why people always complain about the lack of time when technically we have many more working hours now than 100 years ago? Are people really that busy? Well, results indicated that the fact that our working hours are constantly interrupted by something–e.g. emails, text messages, Whatsapps, phone calls–makes that time fragmented and therefore less productive, because every time we start focusing on what we need to do, something interrupts that concentration and our attention shifts. In other words, we need extra cognitive energy to focus on what we are doing and ignore constant distractions.

There is another phenomenon that I increasingly notice among students, clients and colleagues: the short attention span when listening and reading, and also when processing information.

Distracted Listening: Sometimes teaching is more about ensuring that students are connected and “in the room” during a full 50-minute block, than only delivering content. As educators, we need to be more awake than ever, making sure we are also engaged and high energy, but also we need to be highly creative. Students are expecting to find something different and stimulating each class because that is time they will be away from their devices. Students also like prescriptive assignments rather than being asked to think, and rarely do more than what they have been asked. Following up class with an email restating the same instructions is always a good idea.

Interesting, also grown ups seem to struggle with listening! So, we can’t blame only students or millennials (what ever this word means) for that. More and more, during face-to-face meetings or phone calls clients or colleagues disconnect from the conversation. This is fine (we all disconnect at some point) but problems arise when you don’t let the other person know and just nod or say yes, and then you and then end up having two different understandings of the same meeting. This misunderstanding will sooner or later cascade in waste of time and needing more budget because one of the parties realises that the outcome is not what they were expecting. So, again following up with an email ensures the message reaches everyone… Well…almost…this leads to the next point: Shallow Reading.

Shallow Reading: People do not read anymore. Better said, they don’t read more than 147 characters (is this the right length in Twitter?), and even those short sentences are not properly or even read. Many blog posts indicate at the very beginning the reading time that a post would require (e.g. 3 minutes read), as if readers decide whether they want to read something based on length rather than interest. Very long articles are most likely scanned read.

Similar phenomenon applies to emails. The length and word choices (among other factors, like time) determine its understanding, and whether you get a response. The point here isn’t just the fact of not receiving a response, but the risk that this lack of response (or a response that isn’t answering the right question) can generate when e.g. there is a project that needs to be completed, key decisions need to be made or a payment has been delayed and answers are needed.

As information designers, we aim to help people communicate clearly and facilitate understanding, but how can we do our job properly when communication “rules” seem to have changed so much and attention spams are so short? 

Cognitive changes and emerging needs

Generally speaking, from a neuroscience perspective, this lack of attention is a response to having brains over saturated with information and being hyperconnected to devices almost all the time. While cognitive abilities are the same to tackle simple or complex tasks as they are based on how we learn, remember, problem-solve, and pay attention, these abilities can mutate when they are not used or they are used in a different way (as they have been used before). Currently, the cognitive abilities of hyperconnected people are being rewired to adapt to their new information-processing needs. Key characteristics of this emerging way of processing information are: “instant gratification, settle for quick choices, and lack patience” and “shallow consumers of information” (Anderson & Rainie 2012).

These changes seem to indicate that regardless of the complexity of problems that we are now dealing with, there is a real issue involving lack of attention that makes problems be perceived as super complex. Furthermore, these emerging information-processing needs have implications for many aspects of life and fields of study: two of them being education and information design.

Information design responses to emerging needs

As information designers, we have to find new ways to facilitate understanding responding to people’s current information-processing skills. Our toolkits, visual and design principles and communication strategies should adapt to create way of visualising information and communicating messages that respond to those needs. Some key changes are:

  • Tailored messages: Written and visual styles need to be directly tailored (more than ever) to the recipients’ interests and jargon.
  • Content: Messages need to be direct, short and concise.
    • Many short messages are more likely to generate a response than a longer one with the same information.
    • Two types of messages: one to catch attention including main idea, followed by a second one requiring critical thinking (this can be optional to read – just for those who are really interested in going deeper).
  • Image: Visuals are good, but not any visuals.
    • People seem to have become very selective (or picky?) on what catches their attention maybe as a response to how much is out there. Visuals connecting with older stuff but contextualise in the present (vintage culture!) seem to work.
    • Visual simplicity – sharp visuals, well-staged that can also be shared through social media.
    • Short videos, GIFs – not only static images.
  • The sender. Who delivers a message regardless of what is in the message also seems to be key to obtain some sort of response.
  • Delivery time is also an influencing factor: When in the day (morning, noon, evening) and in the week (beginning of the week vs. end of the week) impacts the type of response.

So if you are still reading: Thank you! You made it. Hopefully next time you are in a meeting you will make an extra effort to be more connected and next time you read something you will devote a little more attention. And if you are an information designer, you will start thinking about these emerging needs and how to design to help people better process information.

*Can’t find the reference to that study, but will add it as soon as I find it.
– Anderson, J. & Rainie, L. (2012). Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives. Washington DC, Pew Research Center.
– Kowske, B. J., Rasch, R. & Wiley, J. (2010). Millennials’(lack of) attitude problem: An empirical examination of generational effects on work attitudes.Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 265-279.

One comment

  1. James Reaugh

    Great article. I liked the ‘short email’ suggestion, as I have recently adjusted mine and found that I have more participation in decisions as a result. The communication rules have changed.

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