Image Credit: Dawn Ng

Image Credit: Dawn Ng

As you might expect, Overloaded 2013 was about information overload. The day-long conference had a number of speakers, each of whom aspects of the ways that people approached/dealt with information overload. Big themes were urgency/complexity/importance, creating internal culture guides, structuring language, restructuring language into images, managing energy along with productivity, and attention allocation.

It was of a lot to digest in one day, but I’ve rounded up the research and results I found most interesting from each of the talks I attended below.

Talk 1: "E-nough Already: Stop Bad Email" by David Grossman

  • Everything is put through email irrespective of urgency, complexity, and importance, but face-to-face and phone-based communication are much better for urgency than email is.
  • Most people are terrible writers, and most people are terrible readers. Email is a terrible medium for complexity.
  • People spend a lot of time to figure out where to extract and put in information
  • Email personas:

     The hermit: don't talk face to face and does all communication via email

     The reflexive reply-all

     The motor-mouth--rarely adds value to conversation

     Captain no-context- peppers with email

  • Indexx Laboratories defined an internal email etiquette guide that reduced emails by 15%
  1. No checking emails outside of work hours
  2. Response time should be between 24-48 hours
  3. If emails go back 2-4 times, those involved must have a face to face meeting

Talk 2: "We can design texts for more productive reading," by David Farkas

  • Information overload stems from there being too much to read
  • Scanning and skimming for nuggets of information has become a professional survival skill
  • We need to design for selective reading. A few ways to do so:
  1. Shorter text. This method isn’t likely to work, given certain topics demand lengthy analysis. We should design for new kinds of texts that permit deep dives
  2. Time-based content. Maybe, but we often need persistence of text and static graphics-- need to stare at text
  3. Visual Syntactic Text Formatting: these are automated line breaks that follow syntactic boundaries. Benefits: improves comprehension, recall, and reading speed. Drawbacks: increases length of text and doesn't accommodate complex layouts.
  4. Information mapping (paragraph level): Paragraph is a funky unit of text. Everyone breaks paragraphs for different reasons.
  5. Modular design. Breaking document into chunks, instead of woven text. Slideshows are a good example of modularity.
  6. QuikScan. Read the summaries only (brief read), or read selectively(choice between summaries and sections of text), or read the summaries and full text, which gives you better recall and no extra reading time.

Talk 3: "The Tall Lady with the Iceberg" by Anne Miller

  • We remember visually--we always try to recall with images.
  • Use metaphors and analogies to communicate; they're sticky
  • Make the titles of blog entries and books visual (ex: The Tipping point, Duct Tape Marketing, Swim with the Sharks)

Talk 4: "5 Productivity Choices: Surveyed Productivity Behaviors" by Dr. Breck England

This awesome quote from Nathan Zeldes: "The problem is not the 200 useless emails; this I can clear in 30 minutes. the problem is the 40 serious emails that each require me to make a decision and i simply can't make 40 quality decisions in a single day.”

Talk 5: "Can Technology Save Us?" by Alex Moore, Nima Niakan, and Robby MacDonell

  • Information is not where you think it is-- it's on the edge of the internet.
  • Most of the time, we're not dealing with the important stuff in the email

Talk 6: "Overload: Biology, Psychology and Technology," by Steven Whittaker

  • Information overload is not a new problem. Erasmus asked if there was “anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” in the 16th century.
  • However, IO has changed a little towards things that are manipulating or calling on our attention.
  • The act of whether to decide to do something is taking up our cognitive bits.
  • Myth: Hoarding is the main problem
  • Myth: Research is the problem
  • Attention allocation is the problem, not the quest for knowledge
  • It's typically not about what I need to read-- It's about too many emails/texts/IMs and things I maybe have to do something about.
  • After stopping what they’re doing to read an email, 40% of the time, people never go back to the task they were working on before.
  • People who are least stressed about email spend the most time in it, but are unsure about their productivity.
  • As Gloria Mark’s study showed, email vacations increase focus and planning and decrease heart rate