Signing on for user support

Earlier this week, with tax time approaching, I went to a former employer’s website to download a tax form for the pension I receive. Since I only go to their site once a year, I wasn’t surprised that my password needed to be reset.

I was surprised how picky they were about resetting.

Fifty-plus words in the guidelines, and I still failed the first attempt — probably because the new password my password-manager software generated was too long. I cranked down 1Password‘s default of 20 characters, then failed again from not noticing the begin-and-end-with-a-letter part. Finally, I managed to enter a password GE could live with.

On the same screen , I saw they wanted contact information. Here too they provided highly specific guidance that managed not to guide that well.

What is with those min/max phone number fields?

Diminished as it is, GE’s a global company, with roughly 100,000 employees in the US, and more than 260,000 American retirees. Bump those up by, say, 10% to include Canadians, and you’ve got 400,000 people whose phone numbers, mobile or land line, fit the North American pattern of 987-654-3210.

And if I have to enter a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 3, you could just say “3 digits.” Why I have the option for zero digits in the second field passes my understanding.

You won’t be surprised to learn I wasn’t able to automatically go to the second field after entering three digits in the first. Nor was I able to tab–I had to click.

The phone business was a detour on my update journey, as it is here. I’d meant to update my email. That’s where GE shifted from guidelines to just plain nitpicking.

As soon as I started typing in the “confirm” box, the red finger-wagging appears to make sure I knew the two versions of my email address didn’t (yet) match.

I didn’t include it in the screen shot, but the Send button, which probably had a much more technoid label than “Send,” remains inactive until the two versions of the email match — so it’s not possible to submit ones that aren’t a match.

And when they did, I got this:

I think it’s great to have some confirmation that a process has begun. It’s not nearly as great when there’s no clear message to say the process had ended.

Granted, the first sentence below the heading says the password “will be reset immediately.” But I came to this sequence after entering my old password, which is a good suggestion that I had something I wanted to do, and it probably wasn’t resetting the password.

In other words, the Identity Manager interrupted me, dragged me into this administrative chore, and has left me here wondering how to get my tax form. There’s nowhere on this screen I could click to get me there; I’m stranded on Identity Island. I have to close the browser and start over.

So that’s what I did.

Luckily for me, 1Password worked the way I expected, filling in the new password.

I made my way to the tax information screen and clicked on the helpful link to view or print my 1099 form. Good thing I knew that 1099 was the form I wanted.

And this was the result:

Passing by “maintainance” as alternative spelling for maintenance, take a look at the time window… and the time.

I’m in the Pacific time zone, so for me the maintenance window would have been 2:00 – 6:00 pm. I saw this message at 6:59 am. Maybe the maintenance took longer than expected. Or started sooner.

This might seem like a lot of grousing about relatively minor setbacks. The unfortunate part is that the experience suggests a stronger focus on the system and its requirements — or preferences — than on employees or retirees and their wishes.

I’ll bet GE has a good idea how many times a year people need to reset their passwords. A little data collection might even reveal patterns about what people did after resetting, emphasizing that resetting is probably not a primary task for people using this site.

Making practical use of that information isn’t flashy, like responsive web design or roller-towel pages, but it’s a solid move toward user support, especially in this kind of I-don’t-come-here-often setting.

Cooking up better learning with Jacques Pépin

Recently I dropped into an online discussion of Ten Steps to Complex Learning, about which I wrote a series of posts some years ago. Among the four components of its learning blueprint were:

  • Procedural information, which helps when you’re dealing with skills that you use pretty much the same way each time. You can think of these as the routine parts of larger tasks, like knowing how to navigate Excel and create formulas, as opposed to figuring out what you need to solve.
  • Supportive information that helps when you’re working on skills you apply differently to different problems. This includes things like mental models and cognitive strategies for whatever domain you’re working in.

In a learn-and-perform context, you can make use of procedural information while carrying out some task. Think of how-to demonstrations, cognitive feedback, and even job aids. The supportive information that van Merriënboer and Kirschner talk about, though, isn’t something you can rely on in mid-task; you work with it beforehand, or afterward. And you build it up in part through the practical application–you can’t practice theory.

Speaking of practice, as someone who likes to cook but is by no means a chef, I rely on recipes. And I often rely on what I’ve learned through  cookbooks and videos by Jacques Pépin. Renowned as a master chef but even more as a master teacher, Pépin combines “learning how to cook this dish” with a broader “learning how to cook.”

Here’s a video essay in which he talks about the paradox of recipes:

The recipe is a teaching tool, a guide, a point of departure. You have to follow it exactly the first time you make the dish. But as you make it again and again, you will change it, you will massage it to fit in your own taste, your own sense of esthetic.

I’ve had dinner many times at the home of friends who cook from one of my cookbooks, and I’ve often been amazed at how far away the dish has moved from the original recipe. But it is not necessarily a negative experience; in fact, it is sometimes better than the original, and I end up getting credit and thanks for a dish that had nothing to do with me anymore.

Learning how and when to massage the recipe is part of that bridge from the specific task to the larger construct of principles and relationships in cooking.

Even in his earliest cooking shows, Pépin would underscore that while he was a professional chef – and therefore his skills had been honed by years of practice – his viewers could follow a recipe and begin applying the specific steps to achieve a result.

Along the way, he’d point out variations and considerations. Those can come awfully quickly, but he’s not trying to get you to memorize them; they’re more like highlights you could turn to, or glimpses at the culinary cognitive map in his head.

See what you think. The video essay earlier was about the concept behind a certain dish. Here’s the recipe for braised pears in caramel sauce and (at the 11:00 mark in the embedded video) his own demonstration.

If my hunch is right, a couple of people reading this post will be buying pears next weekend.

Steering Away from Cognitive Overload (part 1)

(based on my article for ATD’s Science of Learning blog; Part 1 of 2)

Trying to learn important information through multimedia can feel like driving through a strange city for a big job interview.

CC-licensed image by Joshua McKenty

As the learning designer, you’re not the one heading to the interview, but you do select the car and choose the route. You not only give directions, but also mark the lanes, erect street signs, and string up the traffic signals. Whatever roads and vehicles the driver encounters, you put there. And if you make mistakes, the driver won’t arrive on time or do well in the interview.

With that happy thought, let’s discuss how to manage cognitive load. In other words, how can you reduce demands on working memory and maximize a learner’s chances of success?”

Research suggests—with a very loud “ahem!”—that multimedia razzle-dazzle can actually work against effective learning. Even background music can interfere with success, the way sound from the car radio makes it harder for you to navigate through a work zone. In “Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning,” Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno explain what they mean by cognitive load and offer a three-part theory for how to make information meaningful.

Meaningful learning: how it happens, how it doesn’t

Multimedia learning, according to Mayer and Moreno, involves delivering information through words (printed or spoken) and images (drawings, photos, animations, videos). By “meaningful learning,” they mean you’re able to apply that information to a new situation.

How that happens, they say, is affected by three factors:

  • The dual-channel assumption says that we handle incoming information through two channels: one for words and one for images.
  • CC-licensed photo by Mr.TinDC

    The active processing assumption says that we need to do significant mental work in order to learn. We decide what to pay more attention to. And, for things that make the cut, we go on to figure out what they mean and how they interact. This processing is how we create a mental construct for what we’re learning, and connect that construct to existing knowledge.

  • The limited capacity assumption says that we can only work with so much at a time in a cognitive channel. We can only handle so many words or so many images at a time.

Assuming you’ve done some active processing with those three points, you can already see the implications. Learning is challenging enough; the way we present information through words and images can help or hinder.

Mayer and Moreno also identify five ways overload can happen, and they present strategies to overload. I’ll discuss three here, and two more in the next post.

Overload in a single channel

Imagine that a section of your multimedia lesson has most of its information in a single channel–say, a large block of text. Let’s say it’s all necessary information. In fact, because it’s necessary, you decide to include a voiceover to reinforce the print message.

You’re asking the learner to read and listen at the same time. The two streams of verbal information —  printed text and spoken words — compete for working-memory resources and can overwhelm the verbal channel.

Assuming all the information truly is relevant, Mayer and Moreno suggest off-loading some content: move some from verbal to visual. Use images to anchor key concepts, reduce the printed text, and let the audio channel carry the message. “Students understand a multimedia explanation better when the words are presented as narration rather than as on screen text,” write Mayer and Moreno.

Remember our interview candidate? She navigates traffic more smoothly with a GPS that combines spoken directions with a graphic map—far more so than if she had highly detailed, text-only directions.

What happened in the researchers’ experiments? One way to express the strength of an outcome is through “effect size.” Using one common measure, Cohen’s d, an effect size of 0.1 – 0.3 would be small, 0.3 – 0.5 would be moderate, and greater than 0.5 would be significant.*  In six experiments involving offloading, Mayer and Moreno report an effect size of 1.17.

*  In Cohen’s terminology, a small effect size is one in which there is a real effect — i.e., something is really happening in the world — but which you can only see through careful study. A ‘large’ effect size is an effect which is big enough, and/or consistent enough, that you may be able to see it ‘with the naked eye’.

From Statistics for Psychology

Overload in both channels

What if both channels, verbal and visual, have too much essential information? No matter how much you need to cover or how elegant the presentation, too much is too much. When the learner can’t process everything, she can’t organize the input into a useful mental model, let alone integrate it with what she already knows.

CC-licensed image by Gilad Lotan

Again, our driver trying to make the interview can’t easily cope simultaneously with a nagging GPS, unfamiliar street signs, shifting traffic, and a message board displaying cryptic data about a detour—even though it’s all important.

Mayer and Moreno offer two solutions. One is to segment content; break material into smaller pieces, and allow the learner to decide when to move on. An experiment broke a three-minute segment into 16 segments, linked by CONTINUE buttons. Compared with a control group, students who could choose when to continue, thus taking the time they wanted with the current segment, performed substantially better.

When segmenting won’t work, a second solution is to offer pre-training, which means providing some information ahead of time, such as the names or functions of major parts. In order to build a mental model of what you’re learning, you need a component model (how each major part works), and a causal model (how the parts affect each other). Pre-training gets you to the component model faster so it’s easier to construct your causal model.

Suppose our interview candidate has traveled to Washington, D.C. Before she gets her car, she might learn the different names for the most important freeway (I-495, I-95, the Beltway) and the meaning of “Inner Loop” and “Outer Loop.” That could help her negotiate the trip from Dulles airport to Bethesda.

(End of Part 1; Part 2 here)

Steering Away from Cognitive Overload (part 2)

This is the second part of my summary of Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning, by Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno, originally published in ATD’s Science of Learning blog. 

Part 1 (here) deals with how we process information through two channels (one for words, one for images), and how overload can occur in one channel or in both.

Overload from extraneous information

(Spoiler alert: “Nice to know” doesn’t mean “good to include.”)

CC0-licenced mage from Pixabay by Broesis

Mayer and Moreno point out that “interesting but extraneous material” takes up cognitive capacity. The learner has to pay some attention—for instance, it’s hard to not listen to background music. Effort goes into deciding whether anything deserves further attention. The more this happens, the less capacity remains for learning what actually does matter.

You probably can guess what the researchers recommend: weeding. Remove the extraneous. What’s the bare minimum that people need to know in order to accomplish the skill or apply the knowledge? Force everything else to justify its inclusion.

In an animated sales-call lesson, for example, I don’t need to see the customer driving in. I don’t need an animated phone, virtual pens, and virtual paper clips. I do need a customer statement to respond to. I need time to analyze it. I need clear examples of responses and how effective they are in a situation like the one I’m seeing.

CC-licensed photo by Steve Kennedy

To me, the weeding of nonessential material is the difference between the rich but irrelevant detail of a war story and the crisp relevance of a pertinent example. Our interview candidate probably doesn’t need to know that there’s a library two blocks before she gets to Midcounty Highway; she does need to know when she gets there, the two right lanes are right-turn-only.

Granted, sometimes you can’t edit details out. Suppose you’re explaining how to operate packaging machinery in a pharmaceutical plant. Your learner will confront lots of equipment and lots of steps, along with potentially overwhelming detail in the video close-ups.

When weeding is not an option, Mayer and Moreno recommend is signaling—providing cues to the learner about how to organize the material. So, the lesson might start by breaking packaging into four stages: product into plastic blisters, blisters into cardboard wallets, wallets into carton packs, cartons into cases. In subsequent lessons, arrows or similar highlighting emphasize key components of each stage.

Overload from poor presentation

Sometimes overload results from the confusing presentation of essential information. Imagine an animation in one part of a screen and related text in another. The learner has to shift focus between the two areas, as well as figure out which parts are related to which.

From a Slideshare presentation by Lynnylu

Mayer and Moreno recommend closer alignment of words and pictures. Placing text inside a graphic, rather than alongside as a caption, aligns the explanation more closely with the visual for what’s being explained.

In a related situation, information arrives as animation, onscreen text, and audio narration. The simultaneous presentation of text and narration, which the researchers call redundant presentation, requires the learner to work at reconciling the two verbal forms while also dealing with the visual form. It’s as if our interview candidate were watching an animation of the route to follow and reading directional text while the person next to her recited those directions.

Mayer and Moreno cite studies with a significant shift as a result of reducing redundancy, such as dropping onscreen text and using only narration. An interesting twist they add is that if there’s no animation, students learn better from concurrent narration and on-screen text than from narration alone. The interpretation is that the on-screen text by itself doesn’t overload the visual channel the way it would with the animation there as well.

Overload from “Hold that thought!”

The final type of cognitive overload involves both essential processing and “representational holding.” Mayer and Moreno explain that as having to retain information in working memory. For example, if you read about the thermoforming process for drug packaging, and then watch a video showing the process, you have to keep elements of that text in memory during the video, which reduces your ability to select, organize, and integrate.

One way to avoid this overload is to synchronize—interweave text or audio with the video. Words about the sealing step should arrive as the visual does; a description of the check-weigher should come while the learner sees that device in action.

CC-licensed photo by Jamillah Knowles

Researchers cite robust evidence that “students understand a multimedia presentation better when animation and narration are presented simultaneously rather than successively.” Meanwhile, Mayer and Moreno point out that if the non-synched elements are brief—a few seconds of narration followed by a few seconds of animation—there’s less overload, mostly likely because the learner has less representational holding to do: fewer things to keep in mind from the verbal information.

But what if you can’t synchronize? Then, the recommendation is individualization, or ensuring that you have learners skilled at holding things in memory. If for your work you’re able to match “high-quality multimedia design with high-spatial learners,” you’re all set. Personally, I’m rarely able to manage that.

Final thoughts

I started by comparing the multimedia learner to someone who has to drive through a strange city to make an interview. Mayer and Moreno highlight ways that your design decisions can make that trip far more difficult than necessary. Pick up some learning principles and lessons from this research—and take off a little cognitive load.

Case study, or, 99 problems: it’s the law

Via Ken White (@popehat) I learned about an article written by his law partner, Caleb Mason, for the St. Louis University Law Journal:


What is it? A line-by-line analysis of the second verse of Jay-Z’s song “from the perspective of a criminal procedure professor. It’s intended as a resource for law students and teachers, and for anyone who’s interested in what pop culture gets right about criminal justice, and what it gets wrong.”

It’s a terrific example of a focused, detailed explanation by a technical expert who’s also a teacher. Mason uses the specifics of the song (and of Jay-Z’s experience related to it) to highlight principles, legal issues, and practical problems related to the fourth amendment.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As Mason says, “When I teach the Fourth Amendment, I ask my students what the doctrines tell us about, on the one hand, how to catch bad guys and not risk suppression [of evidence obtained improperly], and on the other, how to avoid capture or at least beat the rap if not the ride.”