Think Info

Exploring the information space

The biological imperative (ICC2014)

The highlight of Intelligent Content Conference – at least for me – was Noz Urbina’s presentation that caps over two years of research into how the mind works, and the consequences of this on how we communicate… on how we need to design our communications so they are most effective.

To influence behaviour, we must understand behaviour. And behaviour begins and ends in the mind.

So, to the mind. As humans, we are born with our brains unformed. The new-born’s brain is a single large mass: not yet divided into hemispheres, the cortex lacking the crinkles we expect to see. That definition of the brain’s structure comes from learning. And learning is the construction of semantic models. Indeed, we have a natural need to create models. (Infants who are aware there are models they could be creating, but denied access to the experimentation to build them – e.g. they can only watch others play, not participate themselves – will express their frustration loudly.)


There are actually two types of thinking that we indulge in.

System 2 thinking is slow, and requires a lot of energy. It is generally tiring. System 2 thinking is conscious – it is analytical. This is how we think when faced with a new situation, with detail we are not intimately familiar with.

System 1 thinking is quick and effortless. It is the type of “thinking” we consider instinctive. It includes embedded skills and inspiration. But also, those things we have trained ourselves to know and understand. System 1 thinking uses compression and semantics. It converts everything to a simplified sketch of reality, picking out only the key features (that a face can be represented as two small circles and a wide box within a larger circle is a perfect example).

This distinction shows up when people are presented with written material: while skimming over content, they are using System 1 thinking. Only when they stop to actually read in detail do they switch to System 2. Which makes it imperative that we employ semantic structures in our content, to allow those receiving our content to skim, recognise patterns in the structure, spot the key elements, and identify what they really need and want to stop and read in detail.

Because, after all, reading is System 2 thinking, and requires a lot of effort. So it behoves us, as the designers of the message, to ensure it is easy to identify and access.

This effort requirement of System 2 thinking also explains another strange result of information. It might sound reasonable that providing someone with all relevant information will allow them to make a better, more informed decision. But for most people, this is actually counter-productive. Information overload, and the inability to process so much, results in confusion rather than reason.

The balance between Systems 1 and 2 can create some interesting reactions. We can carry on System 1 thinking activities without worry. But the moment active cognition is required, System 2 does a land grab, taking over all resources (except, of course, that System 1 retains enough control to keep basic life-sustaining functions going).

So, what are the implications of this cognitive model on communication design and content creation?

An interesting consequence of how we think is that our perception of an experience is coloured by the tail end of it. If a person is subjected to two experiences, both equally unpleasant, but one of them involves a second phase, which is a lessening of the pain, then later given the option of experiencing one or the other again, they will invariably choose the longer experience, with a step down in pain. This is irrational, as it is the first experience, with more pain on the end, but it is the relief down to an interim level that somehow makes the whole more bearable.

As such, it is important that when we are designing interactions, we ensure that the last phase of the interaction creates delight, or at least pleasure. This will increase the chances of the interaction being remembered positively. It doesn’t matter (as much) what the rest of the experience is like. Of course, we also need to remember that we cannot design experiences for others – they have experiences; all we can do is design the interactions and interfaces.

Also, we need to understand how our experiences are compressed from System 2 interactions to become System 1 patterns. Experiences create memories, which with repetition become patterns, which in turn are categorised and turned into models. Finally, these models create identity. The brain creates a pleasure-reward for the creation of new models and IDs, but it finds it cheaper to access existing ones instead. (So however much you agree with this information, your mind will try to revert to your old way of thinking once you are done here.)

Taking all this together, what we see is that we need structured content, because it provides patterns those interacting with our material can come to learn, thereby enabling them to switch to System 1 thinking when dealing with us. But in doing so, we also have to be aware of the mental models that are being developed across our industry, by our competitors: if we try to be too disruptive, we could simply confuse, even where our communication is objectively clearer.

We also cannot control how people will interact with and experience our brands. These aspects will be coloured as much by everything else going on in their lives as it is by what we do.

So, when communicating, we need to understand how these models work, how to build them up, implant identity into our audiences. And then, just maybe, we can avoid being side-swiped yet again by the evolution of the communication world around us; we can respond to the real stimuli instead of believing the hype.

Raw notes

  • It’s about empathy. Go from the reactive to the proactive.
  • The writing has been on the wall many times, and each time, we get side-swiped.
  • To influence behaviour, we must understand behaviour. And behaviour begins and ends in the mind.
  • We need to constantly redefine the meanings of words, to define concepts of our new industries.
  • Intelligent content is a better match for our biological and mental processes than traditional content.
  • We are born with the brain unformed, a single mass that cross-fires in all ways.
  • A semantic model is a semi-conscious mental storage unit.
  • Do something and exclude a 1yo; they will go nuts. You are denying their need to build a new semantic model.
  • Provide people all the information, expect them to make rational decisions. Think again.
  • Thinking system 2 is slow, expensive and tiring. It contains our conscious experience. Analyses.
  • Thinking system 1 is fast, cheap and effortless. It’s embedded skills, inspiration. It uses compression and semantics.
  • Thinking system 1 skims content, then decides if it should kick in system 2 to actually read.
  • When there is something requiring active cognition, sys 2 does a land grab, and non-essential sys 1 is paused.
  • Sys 1 squishes down an idea to the minimum. Compression error illusion. The few boxes for a face.
  • We remember pain by the tail of the experience. Endings are very important.
  • “I wanted to give you a compliment… but I didn’t want it that bad”
  • The key to a good experience is the last interaction.
  • Design stories all the way to the end, especially the last interaction.
  • The experience compression ladder. Experience, memories, patterns, categories, models, ID.
  • Our brains reward the creation of new models and IDs. But it’s always cheaper to access existing ones.
  • Delight me. You will have a better chance of earning a place in memory.
  • How will your brand stand up to compression?
  • Intelligent content enables agility from experience to identity.
  • Intelligent content is how we perceive the structure of content, naturally. So computers can use it.
  • Those who use out intelligent content will learn our models, subconsciously, allowing them to skim. (Sys 1)
  • When we see/learn something new, we try to go back to the status quo, eliminating what we have learned.
  • Clients know what their analytics are telling them, not what their customers are actually doing,
  • Think about how people actually work with information, how they actually work with people.
  • About us? Boring. About you – are you a suitable client for us. If not, get out. (Save us both times)
  • Anything that has an interface eventually takes on an identity. (Yelling at walls is crazy; anything else is normal)
  • We have forgotten what experiences are. You do not design my experience, only the things I interact with.
  • Writing system 1 and 2: write to a structured model.
  • The way your competitors will interact with your audience will affect your brand identity.
  • Your user’s lives will affect their perception of your brand.
  • Stop being so stupid. Stop buying analytics tools so you don’t have to talk to real people.

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