Information Overload

Information has always been around, its everywhere in your daily life. And although the amount is overwhelming, we never think about the consequences of an information overload. The topic struck me this morning as I was reading through my, overload, twitter timeline.

Invalid installation. Please check the 'Embedded Tweets' admin panel.

Well do we really need to design for information overload? Yes and … no. People have always been overloaded with information and filtering that information is what we have always learned to do at school. Look at your course notes, look at a Google search. You’ve been filtering the information around you for years, sometimes without knowing that your mind is applying the filter for you. If two people talk at the same time to you, your mind will try to focus, filtering the things that aren’t relevant to you.

However, information structure is a common and important factor. Your course notes are structured in a way you have defined. Books have a clear structure; your car dashboard is structured in a certain way. The information has been there, but your focus has been drawn to what is (or should be) really interesting. Hence the question, is the information that is presented to me also interesting?

There seems to be a point in the fact that Alvin Toffler introduced the term information overload in his book Future Shock. The stack of information is growing, but our ability to filter is limited and results in a lack of response from the information consumer. Clearly that is not what you want in a business perspective and it explains the interest in business intelligence software that helps the consumer to find the information needed.

Is there no way to design for information overload then? There is, but the key element is not your design, it is the user. As we both produce and consume information in this digital age we can view the problem from two different perspectives. Consumers are in need of personal filters, created by both their own interaction as by predicting their interaction. But filters fail in many occasions to classify all the information correctly. Misclassification is common and is subject to a lot of academic research. It is, for example, found in your automatic Facebook lists or when using wrong twitter hash tags.

Producers are however key to the story as they create the pile of information that is available to you. Imagine that you could enforce the writer of your next e-mail to classify it; or to wait to send the information to you until you have consumed other information. But are you sure his mail is interesting? Twitter is a good example of how you can influence producers to think twice about the content they submit. It limits the amount of characters available and thereby limits the information added to the stream. So why not asking producers to pay for information submission and consumers to pay back if it was relevant? Are you interested in paying 10 dollars to tell anyone about the paper tray being empty? Or would you rather add some paper and tell them about the recent inventory problems in all shops? You would sure get your money back if you’ve saved the business with that insight! In addition there could be an algorithm that determines the amount to pay depending on the information you are willing to submit, asking less for possibly relevant information.

Does it solve the problem? To a certain extend it does, but our human mind is designed to find solutions to everything. Services like “twitlonger” are a good example of how we circumvent the problem and with the correct amount of money you could still spam your business into information overload. Nevertheless it would be a first step in the right direction given the time that is lost by skimming through the overload of information. Think about it, and feel free to add your comment.

One thought on “Information Overload

  1. Very interesting take on the information overload “problem”. As you say people are in need of working filters and as Clay Shirky pointed out it’s rather the failure of those filters that let us perceive the information overload. It also think it’s a Web 2.0 / Social Media disease that people feel that they need to be informed about anything. I think we need properly working recommender systems and more professional curating systems that improve filters for us.

    Also, I don’t think that your pay-per-produce and pay-if-you-like model would actually work. I don’t have stressable numbers but services like Flattr and the like do not generate enough income for those professional authors that use them. So the return on investment is rather low (I guess). Moreover, I don’t think that producers would pay for getting their stuff published. However, I think that if Twitter would start charging for tweets (let’s say 20 per day are free and then you pay per tweet) we might see less spam there.

    As you brought the Twitter example on the table: many tweets contain links to more detailed information, so Twitter itself is limiting the amount of data it accepts but if people put two links in a tweet you already have very much information in there. If they also tag it and you search that tag, you also quickly face information overload in Twitter…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>