Cognitive Styles theories

In my daily practice I have been observing differences in end-user preferences for IT tools since a long time, and the underlying “cognitive styles” have intrigued me ever since.

I wanted to read more about the relevant theories, and I wondered why there are so few recent resources available. It almost appeared as if the English expression had a negative connotation. The technorati tag is almost orphaned, and even the entries from my referer log indicated that search engine queries for this term originated often from non-English-speaking countries. When I drilled down to a specific aspect that suited my practice impression best (field dependent/ independent, see below), I consulted an apparently comprehensive text book (Jonasson/ Grabowski) containing many details — all of which suggesting that one of these “styles” was much superior and that it is in fact an ability rather than a preference/ disposition/ interest, or strategy or trait. Finally (after 6 weeks of a shipping odyssee), I received Sternberg‘s book containing some explanations.

I learned that the concept had an unlucky history focussing on abilities, personality styles, teaching and learning styles. I learned that many of the preceding style dichotomies have been collapsed into two dimensions: wholistic vs. analytic, and verbal vs. imagery (R. Riding). Verbal and analytic are again a little more substitutable (superior?) than wholistic and imagery (p. 58). But after all, these dimensions seemed to be the most appropriate candidates to try and apply them to the observed IT preferences. I didn’t want to use the vague notions of right brain (“The revenge of…”) vs. left brain although I eagerly follow the progress of understanding their neurobiological substrates, such as this paper (via Eide’s) showing that the right brain seems to be in charge for more coarse concepts/ wider contexts in natural language comprehension and is even histologically more apt for that.

My personal (subjective) observations with preferences towards IT tools, mostly center around a common denominator: some people

  • just don’t like to expand/ collapse details near the border of a topic, click on stand-in’s for distant ideas, or smoothly zoom out and in from narrow contexts to wider contexts and back,
  • but they prefer to hide everything not immediately relevant and make the focussed current context as comfortable as possible. (German for hide = ausblenden which literally means “blind out”, i. e., not the objects are temporarily removed but the sight is voluntarily constrained.)

Often, these people appear as click-haters who protest against deep UIs or web pages, while the contrarian group appear as scroll-haters who hate large screens that need to be maximized.

Superficially, the field dependent/ independent “styles” seemed to be a good approximation for this major difference: “the degree to which they are dependent on the structure of the prevailing visual field.” (p. 5). But since this was soon uncovered as an unability, I had to look for something different. Some of the usability preferences I described in my last post (#117) seem to be more congruent and suitable: focussing and stabilizing context, hiding of tools and navigation for people who prefer comfort in narrow contexts, vs. vertical permeability for people who want to navigate gradually in wider contexts.

To map the practical IT preferences to the theories’ concepts is too difficult for me. The line cannot be drawn simply between analysers/ left-brained (narrow contexts) and wholistic thinkers/ right-brained (wide contexts). Perhaps another ingredient is necessary for wholists to become a fan of hiding/ focussing UIs: a little inclination towards the impulsive end of the reflection vs. impulsivity dimension, due to some impatience with not-focussed screen-contents? But this dimension is subsumed under wholistic vs. analytic, and narrow contexts would better suit to the analytic and therefore reflective pole.

So, I have to patiently wait until the professional experts explain this, the impact of cognitive styles on UI preferences.

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