How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I’ve reworded that section since this was first posted.]

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12 Comments

Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

12 responses to “How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

  1. Michael

    This reminded me of two things
    1. The sacred rule of journalism: “don’t bury the lead” – get the important stuff out first, and,
    2. Possibly apocryphal, the long, long gap in a real time translation of a German politician’s speech, the politician prattling along as the translator sobbed, “the verb man, get to the verb!”

  2. finiteattentionspan

    Re (2): I want that on a t-shirt. Because seriously :)

  3. The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be underestimated

    Does that mean that he doesn’t think there are any benefits of understanding new technologies and we might just as well carry on behaving as if they were magic?

  4. “The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

    “The curse of making a film. When you know what you’re talking about, and want to explore with an audience minus shared perspectives or perhaps even knowledge, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate, but has to unwind itself from bias in the name of some objectivity, while reattaching itself in the name of plot.”

    A rum do alright, every time.

  5. I would love to attend any dinner party that included you and your husband. :)

    I think it is good to practice providing context immediately in anything you do – from your actual work (where you must do so) to all the peripheral tasks you do throughout the day (where you gain the practice).

    As a technical communicator, my job is writing documentation. However, I need to practice the skills of writing documentation in everything I do. For example, the humble email gets the professional going-over. For that, I have the image of a former (nice) boss to help me out. He is an engineer – rational, logical, etc. I pour all my thoughts into the email – getting them all down on (virtual) paper. That method makes me feel I do get all my thoughts out of my brain and into the mail. Then I imagine him staring at me wearily, saying “get to the point”. That is when I write my opening sentence – or edit the one that I thought was OK when I first began to write. All the rambling thoughts that I feel are really, really important to include might end up being deleted entirely, or might be introduced with a heading of “Background” after the terse, context-establishing opening.

    I’ve seen information discussion lists (Googlegroups, Yahoo, etc.) where people ask for help with something and provide no context. Someone then asks for the context, and the person who posed the question seems puzzled that the situation isn’t completely obvious to the world. Hmmm. Should we go back to school and see where this idea of communication about context was missing?

    • finiteattentionspan

      I would love to attend any dinner party that included you and your husband. :)

      Well, thank you! I hereby invite you both, should you ever find yourselves in the vicinity.

      And absolutely — given how many times a day I want to be understood, I should practice being clear every single time (one of the many reasons the distinction between ‘work thoughts’ and ‘home thoughts’ is beginning to blur).

      Love the idea of exploring communication in schools — I would have liked that, rather than having to work it out the hard way.

  6. Patrick

    Catching up a promised!

    I’m with you on technology: we don’t need to understand it at an individual level. A black box is not perfect, but fine. There is too much to know about all the technology we use.

    • finiteattentionspan

      I’m not sure C was suggesting we must understand everything, but I take his point that knowing where the edges of a technology are (e.g. that IE is not the only browser) is very empowering (to some people, IE is the only browser … and that’s surely not right).

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