The world as we know it today is rich in information. At whim, we can usually find (without much delay) an information source that answers a question, suggests nearby restaurants, tells us how to travel, or provides us with data for the paper we are writing. The internet, as well as the technological innovations that allow us to easily and enjoyably access it, has given rise to a new era where knowledge is plentiful and interpretation is vital.
This luxury has had a huge impact on the dynamic of society as a whole. For our ancestors, obtaining information was the primary challenge; the shifting technological landscape now means we must deal with, rather than search for, information.
Long, long ago, before Instagram, Uber, and Siri, men and women of the pre-internet era were tasked with the daunting procedure of consulting tangible data storage such as books, newspapers, or even other human beings to obtain something which we now instantaneously have at our fingertips: information. This previously difficult—relatively speaking—task made us praise the reward (information) even more. As a an act of effort justification, simply obtaining relevant information might have actually allowed us to forego a scrupulous analysis and interpretation of that finding.
Back in the day, if you were lucky enough to find something even close to what you were looking for, it was a win in most people’s books. This is perhaps the most drastic change that the rise of information volume and transparency has brought to society: information snobbishness. As the information landscape has been shaped by volume and transparency, we have adapted by developing skills that allow us to be more selective. Is this a good thing? What impact does our desensitization to information discovery have on the world?
I’ll avoid touching on whether or not information transparency is a good or bad thing for now, but more interesting to me and perhaps more feasible to answer is how this affects the way information consumers behave and what implications those behaviors have for UX practitioners.
As I mentioned, the focus of the war has shifted: We are no longer prioritizing the ability to distribute and receive information, rather, we are honing in on how people are able to distribute and receive information. As a UX practitioner myself, that is a challenge I personally find very exciting.
Looking at the iPhone half-dead, an observation of the negative impacts of our information surplus yields a dangerous insight: The ability to rapidly and instantaneously access information can paralyze us. Too often, we see the wealth of possible resources available to us and fail to give any particular resource the attention it may deserve, skimming the surface of the top results and taking what we need, nothing more. We are afraid to engage deeply—the sheer number of possibilities overwhelms us and coerces a previously intimate society to behave in a shallow manner.
Looking at the iPhone half-charged, this overabundance of information that we currently face forces us to learn how to be efficient in our judgements—skills that are broadly applicable throughout life in general. The optimistic hope is that we will evolve by adapting to technology, harnessing its value and learning to synthesize its vast utility. Over time, we overcome our fear of being overwhelmed by informational options and gain greater appreciation for massive information availability, despite its implicit responsibility: Interpretation.
Well… the optimist framework isn’t quite holding up. In the realm of digital creation, there is now much more supply than demand. Market competition in providing digital experiences is steep. This competition acts as a catalyst for pushing user empathy towards the center of product design. These days, if you aren’t obsessively curious about your user, someone else will be—and you will lose market share.
Although users may indeed become more competent as they adapt to technology to some extent, the burden of bridging the gap between what’s possible and what’s feasible should not be placed solely on the user—that’s where user experience comes in. User research and interaction design allows us to architect information in a way that takes the pressure off the user and improves the experience of seeking and synthesizing information. Information proliferation will likely stay on its current trajectory, multiplying exponentially as we move from the knowledge era to whatever comes next—perhaps the interpretation era?
The problem this implies for information consumers is real, but so is the exciting challenge and opportunity that is becoming increasingly available for information architects and other UX practitioners—an opportunity to empathize with users and design information in a way that fights the war on information surplus.