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Posted by on Oct 1, 2011

Multiple interfaces, cognitive load, and learning design: My apartment in Seoul

I suppose it might be a bit odd to have one of the first posts from Korea be about the different consoles, buttons, and systems that are scattered throughout my apartment in Seoul, but I thought it warranted a post. This falls under the category of interface design and I think the fact that these systems are in another language (Korean) actually brings the design issues to the forefront. It is my belief that when you are dealing with household systems, the interaction will eventually (and quickly) slip into the background and become a reflexive activity.

Think to when the last time you can consciously remember turning on the lightswitch in your domicile. Most of these things become reflexive, so much so that I still reach my hand out now to the spot on the wall where the lightswitch was in my Princeton apartment.

Korea, in general, loves technology. This is neither a good nor a bad thing. However, like most other places, they use components for different things so you have systems (fan, radio, ligthswitch) within a larger system (the overall apartment). They all compete for your attention and, if done poorly, they send mixed messages. Ideally, what is on or off for one, should be on or off for all. Perhaps in a real world this is not possible, but the number of competing systems in my Seoul apartment has actually cognitively taxed my (limited) conscious, attentive thought to the point that I have already established filters for their use. By filters, I have eliminated several altogether and simply fail to see them as I navigate through my own apartment. Most are designed by different companies, hence the lack of vertical integration, but Costel designed the radio for the bathroom and the kitchen and neither of these installations has a similar layout or button design.

The most ridiculous offender, not shown, are the two bathrooms and the two different bidet installations. Two systems for two identical processes in two locations equals zero use of either. I use the bathrooms, just not the attached bidet systems. There might be cultural inhibitors there as well, but the competing interfaces sure aren’t helping. It is kind of like playing Operation with those things; never quite sure what negative feedback you are going to receive.

So, and in my mind logically, I have simply chosen to ignore the devices that aren’t necessary. In my estimation, the time spent learning the interface exceeds the value I would derive from the device itself. I have (at last count) 10 different systems in the apartment, all jostling for some sort of attention, and I have chosen to learn approximately 4 of them. The shower, the lights, the air conditioner. That is about it.

Application for learning design? Absolutely and cognitive load theory addresses this type of design and the cognitive tax it places on the learner. There is so much cognitive activity spent in learning a learning system that it actually taxes cognitive capacity for learning (unless learning the system is the learning objective itself). Also, and this is especially true for open education, lifelong learning, etc. where learning isn’t necessarily compulsory, it creates a response cost scenario. The learner has the choice, and often exercises that choice (I did), to simply not participate. The up front cost of learning a system exceeds value derived from that system.

There is a lot of lessons for closed systems, VLEs, but even for PLEs at some level. Having learners invest in their own learning design to avoid excessive extraneous cognitive load requires some sort of vertical integration, even if this is only conceptual. Processes within the larger learning system need to speak to one another efficiently, with little to no friction. So, my Twitter streams on Tweetdeck needs to speak, via my mental or automated analytical filters, to this Posterous reflection, and vice versa. My reflection should then flow through my filters for possible adjustments. There is some of vertical integration and that integration is through my mental model, a construct of self, space, and progress. Without this level of integration, we have competing systems, demands for attention, fractures in learning flow. It doesn’t matter how much value a particular component might provide, if they wander to far off my mental model, my integrated design, I will generally just opt out of them. This is information evaluation and discernment, however flawed a model. I am consciously looking for interaction patterns in my apartment and if I find these, it establishes context, enough to scaffold me to the next example.

Without this pattern language, these are isolated endeavors, beholden only to themselves. Nothing is transferable. Pattern language, people. I don’t need to redesign everything to see anew, to learn. Indeed, I want context, even if it is troublesome. I want some consistency across the same structures (bathrooms and bidets). If you, as a designer, fail to provide me that, I move on.

For now, I will just wander my apartment and ignore that which places a participation barrier too high. And these decisions to engage or ignore were made in the first few days. Online learning structures have much less time than that to convey utility, flow, ease of use and desired outcomes. Design accordingly.



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