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Taking It All In. Posted on 12/17/2001.

In the interview Mark conducted with me, he asked how I reconcile my interest in visual storytelling with my professional practice of information architecture. I loved that question, because it forced me to bridge the screen-by-screen issues of comics formalism with the deep organizational issues of enterprise information architecture.

In my answer, I use the concept of "receptivity" as the fulcrum--the idea being that at all levels of scale, I'm interested in how people a receptive to information, how they process it, take it in, and act on it.

I've been thinking about this notion a lot of late, in order to help clients get their messages across on their sites. There's a common fallacy that if you want to highlight or promote something, put it front and center on the home page. In my experience, though, this often fails, because when someone arrives at the home page, they're not "primed" to receive this information. This is particularly true of sites with active members, where they're frequently returning. I mean, when is the last time you looked at the home page of Amazon? You probably just focused right in on the search box, entered a few words, and hit Go. Or maybe clicked into your account. You're not in a passive-receptive mode there--you're in an active-task-completion mode.

The trick, of course, is to figure out when people will be receptive. On Amazon, it might be at the search results, though, often, folks are still in the 'getting-there' mindset, and don't really relax until they're at the product page. That's when they're willing to take in information... Which is no doubt why product pages are perhaps the most information dense artifacts of typical web sites.

The more I've noodled on the notion of "receptivity", the less happy I've been with that word. The point isn't to have the user simply receive information... The user must be in a state to receive information that they're then willing and able to act upon... I've thought "responsivity" might be more suitable, but that's a clunky word.

I'd also be interested to hear if folks know any of research on what I'm talking about here... Are these proposed states of mind valid? Do people have a cognitive tunnel vision whose scope then widens once a task is accomplished? Is it a correct model of mind?

5 comments so far. Add a comment.

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The validities of states of mind have been explored and debated for so many millennia by so many philosophers and metaphysicians that I don't think there's much chance of a definitive answer being found on or via the Internet. I think that some people who are professionally, and otherwise, deeply immersed in cyberspace tend to forget that this is not a real territory, it is merely a virtual one. And I don't really know what that means, except I know that a map of the world is not the world.

So your task seems to be to map the human mind in order impose your product or spin on its cognitive and response mechanisms. American advertising and PR firms have pushed into that territory about as well as can ever be expected.
Beyond that, the concepts of perception and prehension as defined by Alfred North Whitehead might be fertile areas for your explorations.
Posted by BJMe @ 12/17/2001 09:04 PM PST [link to this comment]

The word that comes to my mind (rather than receptivity) is suggestibility. Often what you're asking, from a practical standpoint, is for the user to interrupt what he or she is doing and take some extra time to process the information you're offering. Or you might be offering an alternate path, either to the user's intended goal or to another one. In any case, you can only propose and let the user dispose. When I'm using the Web for goal-oriented stuff like commerce or research, my suggestibility (that is, my willingness to act on suggestions) is determined by how relevant the suggestion seems to my completion of the task or query, how expert I feel myself to be at the task or subject, how urgent the task is, and my general level of stubborn-assedness on the given day. Of course, the more concisely and pointedly the suggestion is made, the more likely I am to take it.

I don't know of any specific research in this area (and I sure could use some) but some interesting cases of information design to look at might include walking tours (where you're continuously presenting mission-critical information like directions, while intermittently suggesting points of interest and alternative routes) and signage at cultural and recreational sites, where users are typically highly suggestible but also want their experience to be managed in certain ways.
Posted by Andrea Moed @ 12/17/2001 09:19 PM PST [link to this comment]

I like the distinction you are making between the active state of seeking to accomplish a task and the passive state of receiving and processing information. It's somewhat trivial to point out that it is always a continuum rather than one or the other -- as only the most doggedly focused people are able to disregard and not process information that is sent to them.

And I actually don't mind the term responsivity. Yes, a bit clunky. In research on this topic in cognitive psych, you hear people talk about the subject being "primed" or "initialized" to receive information but I haven't heard a single word to describe the user's state of being receptive.
Posted by Marc Escobosa @ 12/18/2001 10:07 AM PST [link to this comment]

Interesting. I happen to have the same problem right now, and I am recommending to put the message we want to convey not on the homepage but on the page where the first step of the user's task is completed.

On a related note, during the last few days of testing, I've gotten more into the "evolving tasks" thing again: how people make decisions about their tasks, and when they perceive success or not... On this particular site people used the booking process to find information, not to book (which tells me there's something wrong with it).

ramble ramble... I may write up something about these tests, we looked more at paths and tasks than at individual pages and interface problems, and it proved really interesting...
Posted by peter @ 12/19/2001 08:32 AM PST [link to this comment]

The idea of receptivity makes me think of what teachers call the "teachable moment." That is the point in time at which, for whatever reason, the door to your brain swings open and new information can be filed away rather than summarily discarded. It might be worth a search on that term for relevant research. Whether in the classroom or on a website, I associate receptivity with "coming up for air." Eventually you take a pause from your task orientation or daydreaming or whatever and that's when you might actually read the words in front of you. I think the cleverest place for an ad I've ever seen is the space right above the coin basket at a drive-through tollbooth. You have to stop and concentrate on that basket in order to continue your journey, and you see this tiny ad. The leverage is huge. The real estate is small, but by virtue of its placement, the receptivity to it is high.
Posted by Ned Gulley @ 01/05/2002 07:14 PM PST [link to this comment]

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