Control Information Overload with Good Timing
Web-based and mobile communication is giving us information faster, but in shorter bites and with less context. Without context and time to process info, users making important decisions with LESS information than they used to.
Let me clarify – there are quantitative decisions such as simple online product comparison shopping where immediate web and mobile data helps users to find and evaluate products like never before. However, even in those cases, lack of attention and info-overload pose problems. We recently saw consumers on Amazon.com accidentally purchasing standalone arms for a HON office chair for $37. HON furniture is commercial quality and accessories, such as arms and adjustment mechanisms are sold as options. Impatient buyers saw the first bit of info – a picture of a chair – but failed to read “Arms Only” in huge type in the product title. This inattention lead to returns, bad reviews, and frustrated customers. How much more important is it to provide time and context for important decisions? Hasty emails, tweets and texts have all been credited with ruining a personal or business relationship, destroying a political career, etc. Immediate information availability creates emotions and the ability to respond quickly means emotional, un-filtered responses are made immediately, with profound outcomes, whether its a chair or a marriage.
So, given the human needs of time and context to increase quality of human processing of information, how do we provide that in a user interface?
We predict that one of the key innovations of the internet will be the timed release of information, based on its priority and the user’s ability to process it. The interface of the future will function like a conversation, as opposed to a presentation. An effective salesperson must present a buyer with information in a certain order to facilitate a decision. In the user interface world, a wizard is one sales and configuration tool that leads the user through a chronological decision-making process, preventing the user from skipping critical pieces of information and buying ARMS instead of an office chair. But interfaces can do better! A wizard gives the user few options, its easy to lose context as it just plods along in one direction. Asking a user questions, giving them options, but timing the release of information on a single screen is the key. Context is maintained, while the user’s attention is focused on key items as they are timed and sequentially released. Once a piece of information has been reviewed, we don’t need to force attention back to that area again.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to recognize that more options and data does obscure important options and data. We must focus on understanding user needs so we can prioritize information and sequence it. That requires an interface “conversation” – something that asks questions before providing answers. In this area, there is still a long way to go, but progress is being made.