Libraries and the cognitive resource pool

One of the most interesting things I’ve read in the past few weeks was a post at Kathy Sierra’s new blog called “Your app makes me fat.” Sierra looks at psychological research that shows how we use the same “pool” of cognitive resources for both thinking and willpower. Tricky cognitive tasks drain our ability to exercise self-control; using willpower makes it harder to think:

Since both willpower/self-control and cognitive tasks drain the same tank, deplete it over here, pay the price over there. One pool. One pool of scarce, precious, easily-depleted resources. If you spend the day exercising self-control (angry customers, clueless co-workers), by the time you get home your cog resource tank is flashing E.

Sierra goes on to look at the implications of the cognitive-pool research for user experience design; if an app drains too many cognitive resources, what is it doing to the user?

If your UX asks the user to make choices, for example, even if those choices are both clear and useful, the act of deciding is a cognitive drain. And not just while they’re deciding… even after we choose, an unconscious cognitive background thread is slowly consuming/leaking resources, “Was that the right choice?”

If your app is confusing and your tech support / FAQ isn’t helpful, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. If your app behaves counter-intuitively – even just once – I’ll leak cog resources every time I use it, forever, wondering, “wait, did that do what I expected?”.

…If the result of your work consumes someone’s cognitive resources, they can’t use those resources for other things that truly, deeply matter.

Because I’m a librarian and I spend a lot of my working days either showing people how to find stuff, thinking about how I’m going to show people how to find stuff, or finding stuff myself, I immediately thought of all the cognitive resources it takes to do any kind of academic research. If I’m a library patron trying to locate a piece of information (or, more typically, a bunch of related pieces of information that I can then synthesize in a meaningful way), I have to navigate a dizzying number of interfaces and make choice after choice after choice. Do I want something book-length or article-length? How do I get to the library catalog? Which of these search boxes will take me there? I know there are databases that are supposed to help, but how do I pick one when there are hundreds of them? What is this search screen asking me to do? I found 10,000 results; what now? Why isn’t this database giving me full text? I have a bunch of books to look for, but how exactly do Library of Congress call numbers work? And on and on and on.

Librarians sometimes worry that if you simplify the search process too much, you’ll dumb it down to the point where the users can’t find what they need. And faculty and librarians alike deplore students’ tendency to go to Google before anything else. But the Google thing makes a lot of sense when you look at it from the cognitive resource tank point of view. It’s a soothingly uncluttered screen with one search box and two buttons. You don’t have to learn a whole new syntax to use it. You don’t have to make a million decisions. You can dump in your entire question and Google will probably put the most relevant results in the first screen. You can save your cognitive resources for the work of writing the research paper.

And then when you consider all the other potential drains on an undergraduate’s cognitive resource tank — not least of which, for students of traditional college age, is the work of growing up, learning how to relate to other people as an adult, exercising the self-control required to make decisions like “Maybe I won’t go to this party the night before I have to turn in a paper I haven’t started yet” — you start to wonder just how much of that is being siphoned off when a student has to figure out LexisNexis.

Maybe it’s not that students are lazy when it comes to research; maybe they’re just trying to conserve resources that they’re already be running low on when they get to the library in the first place.

I suspect I’m going to be thinking about the “cognitive resources tank” metaphor for some time. I think research, and the pursuit of learning more generally, are a worth the effort it takes — but like Sierra, I’m going to try to ask, where I can: is this worth the resources we’re asking people to burn? And if it’s not, what can we do to change it?

2 Responses to “Libraries and the cognitive resource pool”

  1. Right on, sister. At the same time, I do think that library efforts to make search interfaces that are just like Google are often misplaced: it just *is* a more complicated universe of stuff that libraries are providing access to. I suspect (it would need a lot of user testing), that in the absence of one super-sophisticated metasearch engine that works with All The Databases, library websites would be best engineered on the “wizard” model, presenting the user with a series of fairly easy questions about what they’re looking for. While of course retaining “Advanced Search” interfaces for more experienced users.

    Just a theory.

  2. Kathy Sierra says:

    This post made my week. Hard to imagine a better example of a context in which managing cognitive resources (i.e. reducing leaks/waste) could make a big difference. You’re asking all the right questions… I suppose the good news is that almost *any* effort can help. If it’s death by a thousand micro cognitive leaks, then every small improvement makes a difference. Thank-you for writing/thinking about this.