Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Little Behind the Times

I thought I knew a thing or two about communications theory and practice. I've spent almost a lifetime working with various ways to get messages from one person to another.

After a decade in retirement, I went back to nearly full-time work for two years. My work space was smack in the middle of a sophisticated technical communications group; I had plenty of chances to catch up on the latest developments.

As one of the gainfully unemployed now, I don’t strain to keep up with advances in my field, but the interest is there. I pay attention to reports of progress and change. Why then, was I unaware of some important results of communications research that have appeared in recent years? Perhaps I've begun to get too much of my information via computer.

A few weeks ago, I said that research would be useful to explain why we miss more errors reading text on computer screens than we do reading words on paper. A Nov. 23 article in Time magazine informed me that researchers were way ahead of me. They have been looking into that and related questions for some time. One authority, Jakob Nielsen, has written a dozen books on how people interact with computer technology. He has developed plausible theories that speak directly to my question.

According to Time, Nielsen described the bottom line thus: “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information. You’re just surfing the information. It’s not a deep learning.”

Nielsen tracked human eye movements. He concluded that we focus on screens in an “F pattern.” We start scanning horizontally as we would read a message on paper, but soon we drop down to see what else is on the screen. About halfway down a screen page, we start tuning out the message. In other words, we don’t plant firmly in our memory what we read on a computer screen.

Of course, another authority interviewed by Time writers said, we could print out important documents, such as bank statements. We then would learn more about where our money goes than we do by just scanning a number or two on the web page. The trouble with that is several user surveys show most people who subscribe to paperless statements do not print the pages out.

The new knowledge about communications should be part of a strong argument for keeping paper books, magazines, and newspapers alive. If we do not, we could become something worse than the classic generalist, the “jack of all trades and master of none.”

Going completely paperless, as some misguided folks advocate, might ultimately produce a whole universe of people who know almost nothing about anything.

1 comment:

joared said...

I think we're well on our way already to knowing nothing about much of anything.

Thanks for updating this communication info as I, too, am interested in all such related issues.