licing in Information Space
by Andrew Dillon
Andrew Dilllon is
dean of the School of Information at the University of Texas at
Austin. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If term frequency is
anything to go by, thin slicing is becoming the phrase de
jour in my information world. Digital or analog, I cannot seem to
browse anything at the moment without being hit over the head by
Malcolm Gladwell’s latest tome, Blink, which pertains to
the power of thinking without thinking. The essence of this book is
that snap judgments are often based on fairly deep knowledge, freed
from the constraints imposed by consideration of too much
information. No need to get started on the data versus information
argument here – psychologists never cared much for that
distinction anyhow, and we all surely know by now that an antelope
is not a data point, it is an information “thing.”
is cute about thin slicing, apart from the phrase, is its
justification for the cognitive miser in us all. (That equally cute
phrase comes from BJ Fogg, a keynoter at this year’s IA Summit).
In a world of overwhelming perceptual stimulation, it seems that
reducing the data and allowing intuition to guide us may be a useful
coping strategy – it was surely such a blink reaction of my own
that led me to avoid Gladwell’s earlier book, The Tipping Point. Blink is a wonderful collection of anecdotes exemplifying
this natural cognitive response in multiple situations and contexts.
(My favorite is the expert who knew instantly upon seeing a new
acquisition that the museum had sunk millions of dollars into a fake
sculpture, despite its having conducted myriad tests of the
object’s authenticity). I have the same experience with many
websites – just one look and I get an uneasy feeling.
Gladwell does not mention the digital world much in his book, there
are fairly well established findings in the user experience world
that suggest people are themselves pretty responsive to very quick
impressions of a resource or application. I’ve mentioned
aesthetics before in this column, and it is clear from research on
this topic that, despite our protests to the contrary, we really are
quickly influenced to think positively or negatively about an
application or a website on the basis of its initial look. Indeed,
in my own research I saw how people inferred usability from just a
quick look, and that subsequent testing revealed these guesses to be
just that, guesses. Perhaps even more worrying, evidence of poor
usability gained by interacting with the design did not initially
change the beliefs of these users about the application’s quality.
judgments about information are everywhere. Recently, I came across
a media report of iPod users who complained that the random function
on their players was not really selecting tunes at random. Their
belief was based solely on the occurrence of a couple of songs that
popped up more than they considered appropriate for truly random
play. Apparently this myth has reached such epic proportions that
Steve Jobs asked the engineers at Apple to check and verify the
algorithm. Those with a taste for conspiracy won’t like (or even
believe) the outcome, but it seems that random is random, and it
really is possible to get 10 consecutive heads on 10 coin tosses. I
have bewildered students repeatedly in my research class with this
fact until they stop to think about it properly, that is, to realize
that getting 10 heads in row is exactly as likely as getting any
other specific sequence of heads and tails you care to list in
advance. Blink, and you’ll miss that one.
The problem with those iPod users was they never let a random
play sequence run its course, so to speak – which could take a
week of continuous listening, so let’s not be too accusatory here.
Hitting the random function before the last one ends results in a
new random sequence being generated, with the logical chance that
the same old country song you once thought endearing will pop up as
often as if it was on rotation on MTV.
is the culture of quick: quick perceptions, quick reactions and
quick conclusions. Blink, the book, legitimizes this
response. Gladwell says he wants people to take rapid cognition
seriously, and I agree with him.
For better or worse, he is pointing to something in the human
response to information spaces that should be of concern to any
thoughtful information architect.