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Cognitive bandwidth is like dial-up


A couple days ago I got an email from Steve Krug, author of the wonderful web usability book Don't Make Me Think, which is in my Top Ten Computer Books list on Bookpool.com.Dontmakemethink

I thought about how our books could have been named just the opposite of his--DO Make Me Think, since much of our approach is about how to get learners to process new information more deeply. In other words, we work hard to make people think.

But then I realized that both his book and our approach could have been named:

Don't make me think about the wrong things.

I can't speak for Steve, but my interpretation of his message is something like:

When someone comes to your vintage vinyl store, they want to think ONLY about the records.

They do not want to think about whether that picture over there is the thing they're supposed to click. They do not want to think about where they are on your site, how they got there, and how the hell they get back to where they wanted to be. Worst of all (for the store, anyway), they do not want to think about whether your website actually is an online vinyl store.

If I'm digging for just the right record for my perfect remix, that's what my brain wants to focus on. I want your site to stay in character, and not take me out of the digging-for-vinyl experience by forcing me to think about your user interface. I want to be in flow, just as I would in, say, a real bricks and mortar record store, where the experience is intuitive.

Cognitive bandwidth is precious.

We try to reflect this in our learning books in two main ways:

1) Use a strict 80/20 approach with the material.
Rather than taking a topic, making a chapter out of it, and doing it to death, we try to focus on just the part that gives you the power you need to be creative, and leave off everything else. Because we assume you're not reading our book as an intellectual exercise or to skim every possible factoid about the topic. We assume you actually want to do something.

2) Don't use an example that comes with cognitive overhead.
We had a Java course at Sun where one of the early exercises was on the looping constructs of the language. But the exercise itself was a task that, among other things, involved converting newtons to kilograms. The scenario was some kind of package shipping system, or something like that.
Of course what happened is that when the students got to that exercise, they focused their brain on the whole newton-to-kilogram thing, and struggled with understanding the shipping domain. In other words, they were thinking about the wrong things. All we wanted them to do at that point in the course was understand the basics of looping. But the exercise added so much cognitive overhead that looping was the last thing they were thinking about. [Disclaimer: we don't always succeed at this... I've authored more than one chapter where I forgot the point. But we're trying. Hard.]

When someone has trouble applying knowledge, it's usually because they really never had knowledge. They had information, and that's not the same thing. You can get information just through listening or reading, but knowledge requires thinking... thinking about the RIGHT things.

Our advice to our authors, teachers, and web/software developers is this:

Figure out what you really want users to think about. This is almost always the cool thing they want to do (pick the right record, learn how loops work, etc.). Do whatever it takes to keep them from having to think about anything else!

Imagine your users all have thought bubbles over their heads that say, "Don't make me think about the wrong thing!" If a user has a confused look, it should be because she's struggling with whether the sea foam green bustier really works with the neon pink skirt (it doesn't), or whether the iPod Shuffle is better than therapy (it is).

Posted by Kathy on January 29, 2005 | Permalink


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As an analyst when i am working with clients i sometimes refer to the jerry bruckheimer pitch. can you tell the story in 30 seconds or less? if you have to spend time explaining key concepts then likely folks won't get it.

Posted by: James Governor | Jan 31, 2005 12:37:47 AM

I think -- in this situation at least -- that you're more than welcome to speak for me, since you seem to be doing a very nice job.

One of the things that's always pleased me about people's reaction to Don't Make Me Think is that none of the reviews -- at least none that I'm aware of -- accused it of being anti-intellectual or "anti-thought." Everyone seemed to get that the point was to not make me think about anything I didn't *need* to think about, which is exactly what you're describing.

It's also nice that most people these days seem to understand that making things *clearer* isn't the same thing as "dumbing them down." It's a relief not to have to spend time explaining that anymore.

BTW, where did you get that picture me in grade school? I'm not kidding: I actually had that sweater, and looked a *lot* like that. I may even have a faded photo lying around here somewhere that would prove it.

Posted by: Steve Krug | Jan 31, 2005 2:00:59 PM

JAMES: That's such a good point! We know it as "the elevator pitch", where the guy you're pitching to is getting on the elevator, you're not, and you have until the doors close to convince him...

STEVE: About that photo? You should see the one we found of you we decided *not* to use... you owe us, man. ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 31, 2005 5:34:49 PM

It reminds me of a Food Network show called Jamie's Kitchen, Jamie a famous chef, takes a dozen underprivileged kids and tries to turn them into chefs.

To whittle the 50 survivors to the final dozen they have to watch him cook a meal once and then try to replicate it.

He starts off by boning and filleting a big old salmon. One kid is taking page after page of notes trying to make sense out of it all and try to have enough detail to pull off a spot on the team. He goes into great detail about all the ingredients and the techniques that will go into this dish.

The funny thing is it's not something he has them do. They get fillets that only need a little preparation before going in the pan. The other ingredients are mostly prepared as well.

It is almost a test to see how well they ignore the teacher rather then how well they retain information.

I hate data dumps like that when they are trying to teach something they think of as simple. It is especially bad when they keep saying it is simple, and you have no way to separate the simple from the snow.

Posted by: Stephan F | Feb 2, 2005 10:50:26 AM

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