Technology Impeding the Flow of Information

Technology can make the transfer of information much more efficient. Certainly in training, we’ve been very interested in how we can use electronic materials to share information more efficiently, cheaper, and with more impact. But done without thought, technology can get in the way.

The bus I rode into work on this morning had a sign that looks like this until you pull the cord.


When I pull the cord for my stop, the sign immediately changes to look like this:


The bus I’m riding home on has an LED version. The fancy LED version is more flexible. When a stop has not been requested, the older sign can only tell you one thing, that no one had pulled the cord since the last stop.

The electronic sign, though, can use that time to tell you interesting things, like the current time. And the date. And it can ask you to have conversations at a respectful volume. And other sort-of useful stuff like that. (But, not apparently, anything truly useful like the name of the next stop.)

In terms of its primary purpose, though, it conveys information less well than the older sign. This is what the fancy electronic sign looks like before you pull the cord:


And here’s what it looks like the instant you pull the cord:


Sure, “Stop Requested” takes only about a second to scroll its way across the display from the right, but the brain works fast, and that pause is more than enough time for the brain to register doubt.*

In fact, Jacob Nielsen specifies that, to feel truly fluid, a user interface should provide feedback within a tenth of a second. Any longer is distracting, and enough time to wonder whether, indeed, you pulled the cord hard enough.

This is not a limitation of the technology; the sign is certainly capable of displaying “Stop Requested” immediately when the cord is pulled. Someone had to make a choice to use the flashier scrolling approach here. The lesson here is that as you move to higher tech solutions, don’t forget that sometimes all the options available make it easier to actually get in the user’s way and make information transmission less efficient.

*Bus riders will be quick to point out here that the sign up front is a redundant cue. There is also a simultaneous ding. Of course, that only works if you can hear the ding, which isn’t true of everyone (such as headphone wearers). Interestingly, on this newer bus there is not only a song but also a torpid voice that says “stop requested.” My first thought was that this is silly because it is redundant, but not usefully so, and potentially distracting for folks who are reading. But maybe it it’s an accessibility issue.** Maybe the ding is hard for some folks to hear and the voice is easier or clearer.

**Speaking of accessibility, come hear Mike Paciello speak at the Digital Learning Forum in April.


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