Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

Designing for the right amount of information

December 9, 2012 -- Gerry McGovern

There is a growing need for a much more professional and scientific approach to the management of information.

Ron Friedman, writing for Psychology Today, refers to a study by Princeton and Stanford University psychologists called On the Pursuit and Misuse of Useless Information.

“Participants were divided into two groups, Friedman writes. “Group 1 read the following:

“Imagine that you are a loan officer at a bank reviewing the mortgage application of a recent college graduate with a stable, well-paying job and a solid credit history. The applicant seems qualified, but during the routine credit check you discover that for the last three months the applicant has not paid a $5,000 debt to his charge card account.”

Do you approve or reject the mortgage application?

“Group 2 saw the same paragraph with one crucial difference,” Friedman continues. “Instead of learning the exact amount of the student's debt, they were told there were conflicting reports and that the size of the debt was unclear. It was either $5,000 or $25,000. Participants could decide to approve or reject the applicant immediately, or they could delay their decision until more information was available, clarifying how much the student really owed.”

Most of Group 2 participants chose to wait for that extra information. When it arrived it was found that the student’s debt was $5,000. So, in the end, each group had the exact same information. 71% of Group 1 participants rejected the application but only 21% of group 2 rejected it.

It would seem that because of the effort required to gather this extra information, the study participants gave this information undue weight. They thought, oh, it’s only $5,000, not $25,000. Rather than thinking, as they should have, that this applicant is a defaulter, and is not a good candidate for a loan.

Information can be thought of as the communication of knowledge that results in us taking an action. In the morning we check the weather and if it’s raining we will dress suitably. Information has a purpose.

Until the Web arrived it was very difficult to measure whether information was helping people achieve the desired purpose. With the Web we can observe how people react to information. I saw tests for a restaurant, for example, where customers were shown two menus. The first one was nice and short, the second contained much more information.

People spent significantly longer reading the second one but could remember much less of the menu items than the group that read the shorter one. The shorter menu resulted in more orders for food. When someone spends a long time reading something it can mean they are confused by it. We must measure outcomes, not inputs.

It is not about too much or too little information, but rather the right amount. We’re working with an organization at the moment, one of whose customer groups is frustrated because there is too little information on the website. They can’t complete their top tasks because of this.

However, nine times out of ten we find that organizations are producing huge quantities of poor quality information that is hardly ever tested and nearly never managed once published. Information is absolutely critical today so we must make the effort to check that it’s working. Is your information helping your customers complete their tasks?

 

Ron Friedman. Why Too Much Data Disables Your Decision Making