Thursday, December 11, 2008

Free Associating With The Superbrain And The Problem Of Context Switching

Often, the most fascinating online discoveries come from meandering through the internet’s “series of tubes” without a set agenda or ultimate goal. This is web-surfing at it’s best. It’s like linking up with a massive mind and free associating until you discover something that’s worth a closer look. It was on one of these excursions that I stumbled upon the Monkey No-Climb and thought, I wish that a web browser would, like wikipedia, include a series of related links at the bottom of the page; as in: “users who viewed this page also viewed this one.” This would enable a new level of free association, leading to a higher frequency of wild, unexpected discoveries.

It’s worth noting however, that these content excursions, while stimulating, lack the feeling of enrichment that comes from thoroughly absorbing information. Something is lost in the cavalcade of media.

Edward R. Tufte, the Yale design and statistics legend and author of several superb books on information design, discusses this issue in his book, Envisioning Information. He says:

“In user interfaces for computers, a problem undermining information exchange between human and software is ‘constant context switches. By this we mean that the user is not presented with one basic display format and one uniform style of interaction, but instead, with frequent changes: a scatterplot is present; it goes away, and is replaced by a menu; the menu goes away, ,and is replaced by the scatterplot; and so on…users constantly have to adjust to a changing visual environment rather than focusing on the data. The user is also forced to remember things seen in one view so that he or she can use the other view effectively. This means that the users short-term memory is occupied with the incidentals rather than the significant issues of analysis.’

Although this explanation might not resonant as well with the younger, hyper media literate generations, it's conclusions, to the extend that they comment of human facilities of sight, hearing, and information processing, seem universal and timeless. It explains why consistent web design interfaces, like the pages of wikipedia, are so valuable.

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