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Do you know your users' brains?

I hadn't planned on giving the same care and editing to blog entries as I would to an article, so I reckon I won't always recognize that the way I put something sounds...bad. So I apologize to those I insulted with my "clue" post. But if you're offended or insulted by that entry, you probably won't want to read anything else I have to say ("If some people don't hate your product it's medicore"). This blog is written primarily for the people who are co-authoring or developing other books in one of our brain-based book series, as well as a way to let our readers know more about what we're trying to do to them ; ) and what's coming next. Everyone else is invited, of course, but don't say I didn't warn you. This is intended for the folks who know us (and who aren't insulted or offended by our positions), because I think it will take something away from the spirit of it if I have to, say, establish credibility for each topic by putting in a huge amount of background material and long bios about who we are and why we're talking about this in each post.

If you're interested in getting to know us, stick around and read some of the earlier things we've written here and elsewhere, and we'll do our best to be honest about where we stand, where we believe we do know things and where we know we're just makin' stuff up.

But for the record, I'm part of the over-35 group that might want (or even need) to pay attention to anything that might reveal "clues" to how the brains of their younger users work. Nothing I can do will truly rewire my brain to see how a twenty-year old sees, so I'm forced to tease out whatever useful bits I can by continuing to look at the world in which that younger brain exists. And since I'm determined to craft materials (originally games, now books/learning) that make their brains as happy as possible, that's a crucial job for me.

(And we use the word "user" consciously, despite complaints about that word. I'll say more about that some other time.)

I'm a geek, not a fashion expert. This isn't about the importance of being trendy and fashionable-- it's about knowing how your younger audience perceives the world. And since pop culture both drives and is a reflection of how they perceive it, it's one component definitely worth paying attention to. True, fads and fasions come and go, but dismissing them out of hand could be a mistake because some reflect a more subtle (but powerful) shift, and it's those core brain/perception differences we care about.

For example--the obvious one is the way in which younger brains have been wired up in a world of visual media that's dramatically different from the one in which baby boomers grew up. Virtually everything has changed, most especially the increasingly faster rate of cuts in film/TV/commercials combined with the use/overuse of digital tools to add spinning flying 3-D effects to everything. When so many things move, move quickly, and move simultaneously, that produces changes in the brain. It quite literally becomes
wired differently.
(A few of the other books that address some of this include JC Herz's book and Digital Game-Based Learning.)

Combine that level of visual assault (some of us might call it) with the widespread, mainstream use of digital tools (think of how many today can't imagine a world without digital photo editing, and pretty soon--without digital video editing), the emphasis on graphic design in everything from skateboard art to tagging, and you have a brain with a heightened visual sensitivity/sensibility. What would have been considered the domain of artists and creative types is more and more mainstream (and crosses both genders). Yes, more younger guys care more about the graphic design on their t-shirts right now than in the past, and yes you could view that as a passing fad. But while the design and style likely are a fad, the increased appreciation of design is NOT.

And some of the research in the books I mentioned (and other papers) points to significant ways in which this matters to our books--for example, while a fifty-year old is more likely to evaluate the relationship between pictures and words in a typical book as: "the pictures are there to support or enhance the text", some studies have shown that a twenty-year old is more likely to reverse that equation: "the text is there simply to back the pictures." Putting the pictures at the front and center. Now, this isn't the time to debate whether This Is A Good Thing. I get enough nasty email from people who believe that encouraging a reduction in word-reading is a bad thing.

That's not for me to decide... all brains are far more tuned for images than words (we had waaaaaaaaay more years evolving to respond to images, especially changing images, than the new kid on the block--text). Pictures are simply WAY more efficient for communicating a wide range of concepts, ideas, procedures, etc. (not everything, of course). Yes it often is as simple as "a picture is worth a thousand words". And while that's true for almost any brain, the younger more graphically-sensitive brains has less tolerance for dealing just with words, when pictures are... faster, better at communicating, and usually more interesting.
(I KNOW this is way over generalizing--so all disclaimers apply about how there are many different exceptions to all this).

When I say "better at communicating", the issue is about transferring the mental model in YOUR head into the head of the other person. Trying to get the thought bubble over their head to match what's in yours is always a challenge, but it takes far more skill (and more time) to do that with words than with pictures. There is simply less chance of error for making your point with pictures than words, in many cases. (Again, I'm definitely NOT talking about literature... that's different. Because good writing is from people who DO know how to evoke a specific picture in the reader's head, or better yet, to set things up in such a way that the reader creates his own picture, but one that's guaranteed to further the experience of the story...)

If I didn't suck as a writer, I probably would have tried to write the best technical book I could, using words as my primary tool. But lacking all talent and experience for it, I didn't have that luxury. But now that we've gotten the feedback (we have over 100,000 copies of our books out there in the past two years, with an extremely vocal group of readers), we know we are on the right track. We didn't invent anything we use... we're simply applying the research that says if you're brain could talk, it would yell MORE PICTURES PLEASE!.

Again, when we're just talking about the importance of visuals, there are two key points here:

1) ALL brains are tuned for visuals, and virtually everyone, of any age, can (under the right circumstances of course) learn many types of information and knowledge much more quickly through visuals.

2) Younger brains--and by younger I DO NOT MEAN THE LENGTH OF TIME THE BRAIN HAS BEEN AROUND; I mean the brain that was developed in the more visually-rich environment--have a stronger sensitivity and preference for visuals.

So what are the implications? It's obviously not as simple as just "add graphics" to whatever your product or service is. But it is an orientation. In our case, we did just that. We took a computer programming text book and added visuals to increase understanding, retention, and attention (three different things, requiring three different types of visuals), because that's what brains want. We drastically changed the text-to-picture ratio, and we believe that just doing that alone would have made the big difference.

We incorporated more than a dozen other brain-based components into the books, but we believe the use of visuals is the most important. And our visuals aren't even very good and it STILL made a huge improvement for people. But not all people... we never forget that lots of people hate these books (and those who hate it come from all age groups, although we definitely see the hate-the-format people skewed toward those who've simply had a lot more experience learning from traditional text books). And I should add that some people appreciate the visuals, but hate the book for other reasons; the format has a lot of other components I'll talk about in other posts. But more people love these books than love any of the other directly competing books, so that's a crucial data point for us.

Now, the visual/graphic side is just ONE aspect of your user's brain... (and I haven't even touched on how aesthetics and the emotional appeal is an important component. Some of the folks that talk about this, love them or hate them, are Don Norman and Virgina Postrel..)

There's a lot more to our users' brains, and I'll be talking about the other aspects... the lessons learned from game designers, hollywood, psychologists, more from the neurobiologists, etc.

For now (and I'm talking to those of you who are writing books for our series ; ) my driving goal is to pay attention to how the brains of my learners/users work and especially, what they need, want, and respond to.

Posted by Kathy on December 25, 2004 | Permalink

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