The Information Is Already There—Making It Understandable Is the Hard Part

January 9, 2013
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The concept of information overload is familiar to anyone reading this blog. But I recently watched the December, 2012 TEDxUtrecht video, “From Information to Understanding–Solving the Small Data Problems,” in which designer and speaker Stephen P.

The concept of information overload is familiar to anyone reading this blog. But I recently watched the December, 2012 TEDxUtrecht video, “From Information to Understanding–Solving the Small Data Problems,” in which designer and speaker Stephen P. Anderson asserted that information overload isn’t an information problem but an understanding problem. He contends that the information we need to make a decision is often already there; it is just not presented in a way that we can easily make sense of it.

Anderson gave a few examples of situations where the data is there, it is just hard for people to understand and make a decision because of the way the data is presented. These examples include going through a mortgage or loan application; analyzing long-distance phone bills; comparison shopping online for an expensive item like a TV; and choosing a health insurance plan (in the US, anyway).

He also gave a really personal example: managing his 4-year-old’s Type I diabetes. Upon diagnosis, the hospital gave the Anderson family a checklist for managing the child’s disease on a daily basis (e.g., counting carbohydrates, testing blood sugar, eating food, taking insulin, etc.). It took a nurse 30 minutes to explain the form. In a couple of places, the form was so confusing that if a caregiver misunderstood it, he or she could give a child too much insulin, which would be harmful.

From Anderson’s point of view as a designer, the way to address the understanding problem is to take advantage of the most highly developed sense most people have, which is vision. Visually, people can quickly pick out patterns and subtle differences. When it came to the “how,” I was surprised by his perspective. I thought he would say designers should take over the world. But instead he said, “If you can organize a pantry, or you can organize a closet, then you have the skills to fix these problems.”

Anderson showed how he redesigned the diabetes management form without adding or removing any information. He transformed the confusing checklist into something he and his son’s other caretakers could use to easily understand how to manage the child’s diabetes. First he identified the main elements: time and three things they needed to monitor (blood sugar, food, and insulin). Then he replaced words with icons, created neat rows and columns, color coded items, simplified actions into simple verbs, and clearly marked the times when actions are not required with an “X” (as in “this space intentionally left blank”). The result was a form that even the youngster himself could use to make sense of managing the disease.

His take is that the most difficult aspect of the understanding problem isn’t fixing it; it’s identifying and naming it in the first place. He encouraged all of us, next time we see information we don’t understand, to replace the words “I don’t understand this” with the question, “Why isn’t this shown in a way we can understand?” I’ll take that challenge.

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