Cognitive Burden of Tools?

Many thoughtful papers about usability emphasize that the IT entities, such as folders and applications, should be hidden in favor of the user’s semantic entities, and that a stable, focussed context should be maintained. (One of them is the talk about Deepamehta cited earlier, #83). I hesitated long, and I agree only partially, after grappling with tools for migrating my paper notes (see #116).

1. I agree that the artefacts and tools should be as transparent as possible, and in his recent talk, S. Downes showed impressively how much we can look through them onto the real objects of interest. In Deepamehta, for example, our semantic concepts can be directly manipulated, and since I know that I can also use an unspecified semantic icon for my vague ideas I am almost happy with this representation (except when the vague ideas don’t even have a label yet).

2. But I don’t agree with the strategies of hiding tools and navigation in favor for a documents centered, focussed context.

  • S. Wilson suggests to integrate all tools in one personal learning environment (Plex, slide 17), because of “the cognitive burden of increasing instrumentation”.
  • Deepamehta pleads for the “Bring to me” rather than “Go to” paradigm (of Dick Berry), because

    Go To: The System shifts the focus of the user to another context.-> The context changes distinctly -> the user is surprised.
    Bring To Me: Users essentially ask that information be ‘brought to them’ within the current context. -> The current context is preserved -> a sense of place.

    (slide 85).

I value the “Avoid Interruption” commandment of the flow principle, and I understand the importance of the “Sense of Place” (which is also related to the “Maintain control” commandment of flow). But the consequence of a focussed, stable, (and narrow) context is not compelling and is considerably subject to preferences and styles.

a. The sense of place does not only apply to the user’s position within an application, but also to ressources they collect, and for a certain cognitive type, it may be a useful idea to think of blog-reading as visiting some blogger’s “place”, and it may then be a powerful help to retrieve memes later. Content navigation is not for everybody an annoying thing, even if it involves tree-like structures. If files and folders are perceived as places and shortcuts, they need not be pushed away or replaced by alternate UI concepts such as filters/ search based collections or flags for aggregations. So, “Bring to me” is not for everybody better than “Go to”.

b. If the current context is emphasized and stabilized and focussed, this necessarily means that neighboring contexts are put more radically into the background, and the transition to such a context will be more abrupt and interrupting. If the narrow context is fostered, the wider context suffers.

c. For some users, the smooth and self-directed navigation from context to context is important. This requires

  • control buttons which let them perceive the individual contexts as real according to the direct manipulation paradigm,
  • and other gate-like buttons for switching to more distant environments very easily, in the kind of “home” buttons or buttons that lead back towards home.

Buttons of the former type include the task bar buttons (if not grouped), while tabs do this job only in a limited narrow context. Buttons of the latter type are the “show desktop” in the quick launch bar, “up one level” in folder windows, the “database window” button in Access, or the tiny minimize button in a Remote Desktop control bar which really reminds of a loophole into a parallel world. As soon as such switching controls are grouped or hierarchically arranged or only indirectly accessible like workspace backdrops or tabs, the direct contexts manipulation effect for one cognitive type is spoiled and it might please other types.

d. Much emerging value of current tools for new thinking-support usage comes from consciously selecting them for an indivudual step in the processing of a document. I often use applications for other than the main purpose (e. g. Powerpoint as visualization tool instead of the typical 7-bullet-slides). And I use applications other than the default application for a given file name extension, and therefore I still need to drag file icons onto application icons – which seems to be rather out of fashion after the document centric hiding of tools has become prevalent. But I want to transparently use my tools without restriction by some narrow context.

To sum up, focussing and stabilizing context, hiding of tools and navigation is fine for people who prefer comfort in narrow contexts, while it is bad for people who want to navigate smoothly in wider contexts.

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