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Nothing is inherently usable. Rather, usability is about cognition—or how our minds process sensory input. If technical communicators understand such factors, they can create materials that address them and develop more usable designs. In this session, the presenter overviews

  • Cognitive factors affecting expectations of design and usability
  • Methods for researching cognition and expectations
  • Approaches for applying cognitive research to design
  • Techniques for assessing usability in terms of cognition

By understanding certain cognitive factors, technical communicators can create more usable items and assess the usability of existing materials.

About the Visiting Dojo Expert

Kirk St.Amant is a Professor and Eunice C. Williamson Endowed Chair in Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech University where he is Director of the Williamson Usability Research Center. Kirk is also a Research Faculty member with Louisiana Tech’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science (CBERS) and is an Adjunct Professor of International Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick in Ireland. He researches how cognition affects usability and design with a focus on international health and medical contexts and international online education.

Watch the Video

Recorded: 5 November 2018

Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:00.060] - Liz Fraley 

Good morning and welcome to the T.C. Dojo from Single Sourcing Solutions. The T.C. Dojo is a TechComm community that is driven by you, tell us what you want to learn. You choose the topics and we find the experts. In the T.C. Dojo session today, we have Kirk St.Amant, professor and Eunice C Williams Endowed Chair of the Technical Communication at Louisiana Tech, and he's also an adjunct professor of International Health and Medical Communication with the University of Limerick in Ireland. 

[00:00:27.540] - Liz Fraley 

He has published dozens of peer review articles. He's an STC Fellow, and the co-editor of "Thinking Globally, Composing Locally: Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet" which was released this past May. In the few years and more, the last few years, the technical communicators have become interested in usability and user experience. And this is one focus of his academic research and consulting work. There's more, a lot more to know about him.

[00:00:54.720] - Liz Fraley 

He's an extremely active researcher who encourages practitioners to pair with academics to advance our entire profession. I was lucky enough to have met him at STC Summit earlier this year in Orlando. Talking with him is energizing and inspiring, we're especially grateful he could come to the T.C. Dojo today to share his experience with all of us. I guarantee you'll enjoy it and you'll also learn a lot. Kirk has a lot to cover and will answer questions as we go, so be sure to type them in when you think of them so you don't forget what you wanted to ask.

[00:01:26.170] - Liz Fraley 

I'm going to stop share, pass it to Kirk. Down at the bottom. 

[00:01:32.930] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you, Liz. 

[00:01:36.050] - Liz Fraley 

Click "share your screen" and it's all yours. 

[00:01:39.530] - Kirk St.Amant 

Liz, thank you so much for this opportunity and thank you all for the chance to speak with you today. As Liz mentioned earlier, I'd like this to be interactive as much as it can be. My grandmother had a mantra, "you speak with people, you don't talk at them," and for that reason, if questions come up as I'm presenting today, please feel free to type them into the question box area and Liz will read them off and I'll try to respond to them as I go.

[00:02:02.240] - Kirk St.Amant 

We'll also have time at the end to do a question and answer, so hopefully there'll be other things to address at that point in time. So, with that said, let's jump right on in, and today we're going to talk about cognition, design and usability. Or, the weird things your brain does that makes you figure out how things get used and how things don't, because it turns out that in many ways, usability and design are a lot like metaphysics.

[00:02:24.410] - Kirk St.Amant 

That is, we're trying to basically answer the same great questions in life and the universe. Specifically, we're trying to figure out, you know, why are we here? Why are we in this specific particular place at this particular time? We're trying to address questions like, you know, what do I do? I'm here, what am I supposed to do in this setting right now? What's going to happen? For that reason we're also looking for, "well, what do I use to accomplish that, and in this setting, for what I'm trying to get at?" 

[00:02:50.630] - Kirk St.Amant 

And finally, the great penultimate goal, "well, how do I know? How do I know I'm doing the right thing in the space that I'm in to make sure that it all works?" So, these are what we're going to look at today and hopefully, at looking at how cognitive aspects affect perception, usability, and design, we might get at some of the great questions of the universe. If not, it'll at least be entertaining. So, to sort of launch into this, let's take an example that many of us have encountered before.

[00:03:16.010] - Kirk St.Amant 

Let's imagine we're in a specific space trying to do a specific thing. Particularly, we've just walked into the lobby of a hotel to try to check in to reserve a room. Let's talk through that process quickly, because most of us are familiar with it. And what's interesting is, any time we walk into this space, this hotel lobby, a strange thing happens. We walk through the front doors and we suddenly know the visual design and layout of a place without ever having entered it.

[00:03:41.210] - Kirk St.Amant 

For example, we know that we walk in the front doors, we are going to proceed to a check-in desk that is located someplace in front of us. It could be to the right of the entrance, it could be to the left of the entrance, it could be straight ahead.

[00:03:53.870] - Kirk St.Amant 

But, it's never located behind us. We never loop around, behind the way we came in, to find something. We know where it's positioned. More importantly, we know exactly what this thing will look like and what to look for. It's of a certain height, which is higher than a conventional table, and it's configured in such a way that we can only approach it from the front. There is no way we can walk in around behind it to do anything.

[00:04:16.490] - Kirk St.Amant 

Rather, someone has got to have specific access to get to that particular point behind the desk to interact with us. The moment we walk into this space and see this thing, a reflexive reaction kicks in, we know what to do. We know that we're going to walk up to this desk and either approach someone who is there, or wait for someone to approach us. But then we engage in sort of, a scripted dialogue, "Hi there, I'd like to check in,"  or "Hi there, I've reserved a room," and we know the banter that takes place. What's interesting is these expectations, this visual design and usability, walking into a setting, knowing what the things are and knowing how to use them, occurs in every kind of hotel lobby we've ever seen. They've got the same basic design, they're configured in the same basic way, and the design of that configuration creates usable situations. We know what usability is in this context, based upon what is there and what we're going to do.

[00:05:11.180] - Kirk St.Amant 

Equally important, this sort of, reflects the set of expectations, extends beyond just the space itself. We expect that we will be interacting with others who will perform specific processes in a space, and that they become part of the user experience or how we use things in that space. So, for example, we know that when we walk up to the check-in desk we'll encounter someone who will help us, who will check us in. Now, in some cases, they could have a formal uniform, or in some cases they could be dressed in a more or less standard way.

[00:05:42.500] - Kirk St.Amant 

But what's interesting is, they're dressed in a particular way that indicates they work there and they perform a specific function in that space. They are in and of themselves, a visual design facet that's associated with usability. And we know to interact with them because they will use certain technologies to perform specific processes and they will provide us with certain technologies designed in certain ways to perform specific activities. I walk up to the check-in desk, I wish to check in,

[00:06:13.730] - Kirk St.Amant 

I reflexively know that the person working at that desk is going to use some sort of computer to either enter me in the system, or to find my reservation. I also reflexively know at some point in time, I will have to physically sign something. It could be to initial a particular reservation, it could be to sign a receipt. But I know I'm going to use a pen in that space and I know more importantly, that pen will be provided to me by the individuals working behind that desk. So, I know there's a technology to expect and I know what to do with it.

[00:06:45.930] - Kirk St.Amant 

I also know that I can expect another kind of technology to be present that I will have to use, and that's a credit card check-in machine for most of us. We walk into the space where we expect to present our credit card, either to confirm the reservation or to make it. But at some point we will either insert the chip, slide, or tap to make sure that a transaction is processed. Now, all of these things, again, are reflexive.

[00:07:09.870] - Kirk St.Amant 

They take place specifically the moment we recognize the design of a space and they allow us to move through everyday, complicated activities in a way that is almost seamless and allows us to do other things. This reflexive behavior triggered by design, guided by design, that inherently tells us how to use objects, how to use spaces, and how to behave is what we're going to look at today. What happens whenever those expectations are changed? What did those cognitive factors mean for how we, in technical communication, design things from the words on a page to the interface on a screen, to achieve an objective?

[00:07:47.800] - Kirk St.Amant 

I help make this point, let's change the situation. For example, you walk into a hotel lobby to register and the design of that interface, the design of that space you need to interact in to achieve an objective, is not what you expected. You walk in and you encounter something like this. Now, you know where you are because there's a sign that tells you where you are, but a strange thing happens, the visual design of the space that I use to identify it and that I used to sort of trigger these reflexive behaviors of how to proceed with the check in process,

[00:08:20.450] - Kirk St.Amant 

It's broken, or it doesn't  enact at all. Rather, I kind of, sit there stuck because I've got no mental model that I can draw upon to tell me how to behave in that space, according to that design, to use things or to make things usable. And for most of us, one of three things will happen. A majority of us will perhaps scan the area looking for instructions that tell us how to use this thing. But we've tried desperately to figure out what are these parts and pieces, how do we contextualize and conceptualize this design of this space to use things?

[00:08:54.720] - Kirk St.Amant 

Another chunk of us will simply sit back and wait. We'll wait for others to come in and perform the process and use the technologies for us, and by observing what they do, we'll pick up on how things are used, but we need some sort of guidance to know how to use the designs in that setting because they're decontextualized and have no meaning. And for a very small number of us, we'll go to begin to play with things, we'll begin to touch interfaces, interact with objects, try to figure out what they do, and through a process of trial and error, come up with some sort of mental model for how to use things in that space.

[00:09:29.220] - Kirk St.Amant 

But none of those situations is ideal, and all of them are design expectations for what that space is, or should look like, have been violated. And that violation of expectation really affects what we can do and how we can use objects in that space to achieve an objective. And this happens regardless of how that space is reconfigured, because in all of these different examples, parts and pieces of our visual expectations are there, but not all of them are. And because they're designed in different ways, if they affect how we use things and perceive and expect use to take place. This extension and expectation also applies to the objects people in that environment use.

[00:10:11.370] - Kirk St.Amant 

We go to a check-in desk and individuals are going to use a computer to check us in. We expect that computer to have a certain design or look a certain way. If it doesn't, we begin to get a little nervous. We begin to question, "can this technology, this tool, be used to achieve the purpose? I need it to, by this other person, or do I need to be worried?" In some cases, the design can be so far afield that we recognize that this is a computer, we know what this is, but it's so unexpected that we have grave doubts about how it can even be used to achieve an objective in a space. And in other cases, that design might be so customized that we really are worried about, is this even usable? Will it achieve these objectives? These expectations of design and use for a space, based upon mental models and expectations also extends to the things we use. I need to use a pen to sign forms to check in, what's a pen look like? If I'm handed this,

[00:11:08.580] - Kirk St.Amant 

do I know what it is and what to do with it? Is this a pen that I can use? Will that design affect recognition and use? For some of us, it might seem a little strange, but we might have seen a pen that looks like this before, we can work with it. But what happens if that design gets very far afield, to the point of which we're trying to figure out what actually is this thing? Because I can't even use it,

[00:11:29.040] - Kirk St.Amant 

or, is this thing even in the right setting? Just for the record, these are all examples of pens, all examples of computers, all examples of check-in spaces. But in some cases, we stop cold when we encounter them. We don't know how to use them, what role they fulfill in a specific setting. That cognitive process, how we process information, affects use based on design. And for most of us, looking at the number of images on the screen right now, it may seem a bit overwhelming.

[00:11:58.350] - Kirk St.Amant 

And that sense of overwhelming you have, has to do with how we're tapping some of the limitations our mind has, for processing information that affect usability and design. So, with that said, let's talk about what the mind does to understand what we, as technical communicators can do to create more usable designs based upon how the mind operates. And the first thing we have to understand or to work with is, cognition is how the mind processes information. And while the brain is the world's greatest supercomputer, and while there are debates about how much it is like a computer, there are certain ways in which it's analogous. In that, it has to process information that it takes in to create outputs that achieve things.

[00:12:40.110] - Kirk St.Amant 

And like all computers, or like all technologies, it has limitations. The two specific limitations we're very interested in, are what's called the "Hundred Step Processing Rule" and the seven plus or minus units of short term memory. Very quickly, the Hundred Step Processing Rule says that, of all the billions of neurons in the brain, only 100 can be activated at one time. So, when you think about it, well, we've got a huge number of connections. A very limited number can be engaged in one process at one specific instance.

[00:13:12.450] - Kirk St.Amant 

And this greatly affects how much information the brain can process at any one given time. Now, most of our information processing, particularly in terms of recognition, understanding, and use, takes place in our short term memory when we encounter something for the first time. And it turns out, our short term memories have very, very, very strict limitations in terms of the amount of information they can hold in place and process at once. That limitation is 7, give or take 2 units, between 5 or 9 units of information.

[00:13:47.850] - Kirk St.Amant 

Now, what a unit or a chunk, if you will, is, can vary. But how you unit or segment information affects what that short term memory can do with that. Within this context, there are some really important input and output things that are going on in the brain. Now, depending upon the source, these will vary. But perhaps the greatest I've seen is, that through our five senses, we take in about 400 billion bits of sensory data every second that our brain is encountering.

[00:14:18.210] - Kirk St.Amant 

But our brain can only process, again its relative, but for some sources, about 2000 of those bits at any one point in time. This input versus output, or input versus processing power, creates a situation where we've got to figure out, how can we even move forward in life? How is our brain not completely shutting down all the time because it's overwhelmed? Its a facet called "cognitive load," how much information our brain can process at once to allow it to do multiple things and use designs.

[00:14:48.780] - Kirk St.Amant 

It turns out that our brain is very adept at creating structures that get around these limitations, and they do so, through tapping what short term memory can do, organizing and reorganizing units of data into different chunks of information to make processing work quickly. And so, today we're going to look at some of those chunks and what they mean for usability and design.

[00:15:13.540] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, let's start with pretty much, how usability works, or kind of, how life and  cognition works. We walk out into the world and we encounter something for the first time, something new, and we need to do two things, excuse me, three things very quickly, all of which involve our short term memory. We need to recognize that item, what is this thing? Is it a hotel lobby? Is it a pen? But we need to recognize what the thing is. Identification, once we've identified something, we need to categorize it.

[00:15:48.480] - Kirk St.Amant 

That is, what does it do? Or, what purpose does it serve? So, it's a hotel lobby, it serves the purpose of letting us register to receive a room, to stay a place overnight. It's a pen, it's used to write or to create written form on a piece of paper or some other surface. The third thing we do is, based upon what the item is, and what it does, we need to figure out what to do with it in that specific context.

[00:16:14.580] - Kirk St.Amant 

We need to operationalize it. In this setting, in this Best Western in Sheboygan I'm in the hotel lobby in order to check in so that I can present at a conference the next day. In this particular check-in setting, I have a pen that I need to use to write to sign my name to a reservation form. Our short term memory needs to do all of these very quickly so we can proceed forward. Now, where things get very difficult is memory does this through what's called a matching process, or a matching of archetypes. In our memories we have a specific example of what everything we've encountered before should look like. I've been to enough hotel lobbies in my life that I know the average hotel lobby should look like this, so when I walk into a new space I look at that new space, I compare it to the mental picture or model I have for a hotel lobby and see if it matches.

[00:17:07.680] - Kirk St.Amant 

If there's a match, I recognize it and I move on to categorization and operationalization. If it doesn't match, I say, "it's not that," I open up another model, is this a check-in station for an emergency examination room? And again, I try to match those visual models. I do the same thing with objects, is this a pen? Here's the mental model I have for pen, does it match? If so, I identify it and move on to categorize and operationalize.

[00:17:36.390] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, because this process has to take place in short term memory, and because it must take place incredibly quickly, this is what causes the brain to sort of, shortcut things in certain ways, to allow us to proceed. And it's these factors, how the brain tries to shortcut these three processes in short term memory, that we're going to look at, that have pronounced implications for usability and design and for what we do. So, with that said, let's take a look at some examples.

[00:18:04.740] - Kirk St.Amant 

Chances are, you see an image in front of you and you know what it is inherently, you can recognize it. Now, notice, not all the information is there. And the same is the case here, you see a triangle and you see a square. Yet both images are missing large amounts of visual information. How do you recognize them as such? This is what the brain does, in building these models we use to identify things, it doesn't say, "take in all the visual input you can on what something looks like,"

[00:18:34.170] - Kirk St.Amant 

rather, it says these are specific key features this item should have for me to identify it as. For me to identify this shape as a triangle, it's got to have three corners that look like this. As long as something has three corners that look like this, I'll identify it as triangle, know what triangles, how they're categorized and know how to use it in a situation. The same for a square. So, basically these mental archetypes we've used are based upon minimal visual data, or minimal sensory input that we use to recognize things very quickly because we don't have a lot of space in our brains to process them. The same is the case when we move into a space.

[00:19:15.600] - Kirk St.Amant 

Why do all hotel lobbies look the same way? Because we've got a model for what they should look like, the specific features we expect to encounter. The color of the interior we don't really care about, the pictures on the wall, no, not so much. The kinds of pillars in the lobby, we don't know. But we do know there are certain visual factors that have to be there. The desk, the check-in desk is in front of us, it's a certain height and we can't get in behind it. Those visual features help us identify it, the same way minimal features help us identify shapes. So, what the brain has done is, it's created these mental models of minimum visual data, or minimum sensory data that we use to recognize things. These trigger the useability reflex, if you will. We recognize what something is, we can categorize how it's used, we can operationalize it in the context, based upon knowing what it is, and what it does.

[00:20:05.170] - Kirk St.Amant 

There are different kinds of mental models we use to create these shortcuts. The ones we're going to look at quickly today are what are called kinds of schemas, or they're collections of sensory data, or collections of experiential knowledge that are bundled together to make single units we use to move through life and move through our short term memory. Back to that 7 plus or minus 2 units I spoke about earlier, this is how they're built. The two specific kinds of units we're going to look at today are prototypes and scripts.

[00:20:34.240] - Kirk St.Amant 

Prototypes are visual models we use to identify objects in the world around us. They tell us what something is, and in recognizing what something is, they tell us what it does or what category it belongs to. Scripts are reflexive, mental behaviors or models we've built for overall complex behaviors in a specific standard space. When I walk into a hotel lobby, how do I know the complex process of checking in, which is incredibly complicated, and involves a number of different tools, technologies, and individuals?

[00:21:05.200] - Kirk St.Amant 

How do I know what they are inherently? Because I've got one giant unit of information that sticks in my short term memory as one coherent unit that says, "lobby check-in script: here is how you proceed, here's what you do." To trigger that script, that reflexive behavior that tells me how to use things, I need to recognize the space I'm in. I need to have a prototype for the space I walked into that lets me visually recognize it to trigger the correct reflexive behavior that lets me know how to use objects in the space.

[00:21:35.580] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, let's take a look at how we do that. I want to use a pen, or I've got to identify a pen, like the example here. Whenever we look at items in the world around us, we don't see them as one integrated whole of different visual features. We see the minimum based things we need to identify them. In the case of a pen, we know it's got a specific cylindrical shape. We also know that that shape has got two different kinds of ends, one that's pointed for writing, and one that's more rounded for any other purpose you may have.

[00:22:04.110] - Kirk St.Amant 

And then for some of us, that pen could also contain a clip that attaches it to the pocket. But this is the minimal visual information we use to categorize items in the world around us as pens, or that we use, to recognize things as pens. So, for example, we do the same thing with visuals like the triangle shapes I showed you earlier. The base minimum visual data we need to understand what something is, the rest is left open so we don't have to process it.

[00:22:31.470] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, whenever I'm trying to figure out I've walked into a new setting, I need to use a pen to sign in at the check-in desk, my brain calls up my ideal prototype, my mental model for what a pen should look like, and it compares it to the things in the world around me. Those objects, do they have enough characteristics in common with my ideal, my prototype for what a pen should look like, so I can recognize it, to categorize it, and operationalize it?

[00:22:55.890] - Kirk St.Amant 

What objects are there that do meet, and do match those expectations? Once I find a close match, I can identify what I'm looking for and discount things I'm not looking for. And this determines use or usability. I know what's a pen, I know how to use a pen. In this setting I know, based upon the script I have, how to use it. I know how not to use other objects. The same is the case for spaces, how we move through overall spaces.

[00:23:24.300] - Kirk St.Amant 

We recognize them through this matching process, which is why the designs of spaces are so similar. They help us identify where we are, to trigger inherent reflexive expectations of what we're going to use to do something in that space, and what those things should look like. What essentially happens is, this recognized, categorized, operationalized process, that our short term memories engage in, involve both place and object, and here's how it works. I need to figure out where I am, to figure out what I expect to be in that setting, to achieve a specific purpose.

[00:24:01.780] - Kirk St.Amant 

More importantly, once I know where I am, I know what materials in that space should look like, so that I know how to use them reflexively based on experience to perform a process. So, whenever we talk about mental modeling and cognitive structures, we have them for the places we're in, and the objects we use, and they both interconnect with each other. I need to know where I am to know what to use, and I need to know what the visual features of the space are, to identify it.

[00:24:32.040] - Kirk St.Amant 

To sort of, put this all together, in terms of cognition, design, and usability, all these facets come together in a five part process that kind of, works as follows. And the five parts in terms of design, recognition, and usability are, context, content, construct, contact, and continue. It's a mouth full, say that five times real fast. Let's talk through these five C's very quickly. The first one is context, the very first thing I've got to do is, figure out where am I. When I look around in the space I'm in, where am I?

[00:25:05.250] - Kirk St.Amant 

Do I know where I am? The moment I identify the space I'm in, it brings with it an expectation of the objective I seek to achieve. So space brings with it objective, but it's got to be identified and it's got to be identified by the visual features of that space. At that point, once the space is identified, a script, a pre-existing mental reflexive model for how to behave and use things in that space, is triggered by the brain.

[00:25:31.560] - Kirk St.Amant 

Again, this shortcuts short term memory.

[00:25:35.460] - Kirk St.Amant 

Once I know where I am, I've got some very specific expectations of content. That is, I know what should be in this space, to perform the tasks I expect to perform in this space. I'm checking into a hotel room, I know that in this space I should expect there will be a pen for me to use to write with, and a credit card machine for me to pay with. I know those things will be there, they are expected items of use that facilitate usability in that space.

[00:26:05.650] - Kirk St.Amant 

Construct: not only do I know what should be there, I've got a distinct expectation of what it should look like. I'm in a standard hotel lobby, I expect the pens that are in that standard lobby to look a standard way, which is like my standard pen for standard default, my prototype for what a pen should look like. My credit card reader, since it's a standard lobby, should default to the standard. Versus, I'm in sort of, a specialty, novelty hotel, a specialty, novelty space.

[00:26:33.280] - Kirk St.Amant 

There might be deviations in what something should look like. Maybe it looks like a quill pen instead of a conventional pen, but that expectation of space guides what I can recognize, and then once I've identified it, how I reflexively know how to use it based upon prior experience.

[00:26:50.340] - Kirk St.Amant 

It's not enough to just say, "I understand what something is." Contact is important. The moment I take possession of that object that I've recognized, I need to be able to perform a process with it, and that process needs to start in a certain specific way that I've come to associate over time. It's got to mimic a pattern I've seen before. And so, what  contact looks like is, the moment you make contact with the object you're about to use, what do you expect a first step in the process to be?

[00:27:19.510] - Kirk St.Amant 

That's important because it orients you for the final part. Continue: what are the other steps in the process you need to perform, that you expect to perform, based upon the design of the object you have in that space? To sort of, put it all into perspective, this five part tiered structure, let's look at how it works in different kinds of environments, in terms of how the brain affects the way we interact with things. So, all usability is about is, using, achieving a specific objective in a given space.

[00:27:52.600] - Kirk St.Amant 

Once I know where I am, and what is there, and what the things in that space should look like, I should know how to use them to perform a task. Let's say my objective is to make a phone call. I need to make a phone call, and the physical space I'm in, is for an office. So, let's look at the five C's right there, in terms of designing materials to be useful in that space. My context is office, I need to make a phone call in that office.

[00:28:19.540] - Kirk St.Amant 

The content, the things I expect to be there, I know that there'll be a desk, a chair, a computer and a telephone, because my prototype, my mental model for the visual features an office should have to be identified as an office, includes those in them, and telephone is one of them. Now, I know a telephone should be there, but what does it look like? Well, I know that in an office, an office phone should have a very specific look.

[00:28:45.520] - Kirk St.Amant 

This is the construct part of things. I know what kind of phone to look for in this office, because I have a mental model, a prototype, that tells me what it should look like. Therefore, I see it, I recognize it, and I know how to use it. This brings us to, contact: the first step in the process. For most of us who've interacted in offices and know what the phones there look like,

[00:29:07.420] - Kirk St.Amant 

we also know that to operate them, you don't simply pick them up and dial. You've got to dial out, which means, you know instinctively that there's got to be a specific special process to start the sequence, to use the technology. And so, either we'll ask someone, do I need to dial 9? Do I need to dial 1? Do I need to dial anything special to dial out? Or we'll expect the phone to have some sort of placard or other sort of indicator on it that tells us how to dial out, but that then governs the rest of the process.

[00:29:36.100] - Kirk St.Amant 

The continue part, how we perform the overall process to use the technology in that setting to achieve an objective. This is all mental default, these are all mental models our brains have taught us to associate with specific designs in a particular setting, and it works the same way in virtual spaces. I need to make a phone call and the setting that I'm in is, interface of mobile phone. In this case, my context is, mobile phone interface. Content: what are the things I look for or expect to find in this virtual space?

[00:30:09.640] - Kirk St.Amant 

There are specific kinds of apps or functions I expect to be readily identifiable and recognizable with all mobile phones. There are things like, text app, a voice call app. For some of us, calendar app, calculator app, but there are certain specific apps, certain specific things we expect to find and readily identify in that space. And we expect those things to have a specific, recognizable design. The design of the app for "make phone call with phone" should look a specific way, so we can recognize it and reflexively know how to use it.

[00:30:41.880] - Kirk St.Amant 

Once we recognize that, we initiate contact. That is, I tap the app, what happens next? Do I expect to be taken directly to a screen of numbers that lets me dial in? Do I have to click a second app that says, "now access number screen versus text screen?" But how I begin the process, the point at which I....  then governs the rest... the continuation process. All of this design, based upon setting, based upon object expectations, is because our mind has limitations in how much data can input in process. And these affect what we look for to figure out what a usable design is, and is not. So, in terms of, how to research this, or tie this into technical communication, there are a series of questions we want to use to understand the research, what's called the Script Prototype Map or "cognitive mapping." What are the mental models our users have that really they are using to guide their use in a space, so we know how to design things that can be quickly recognized, quickly categorized,

[00:31:45.250] - Kirk St.Amant 

so, we know what they do and quickly operationalised? We know how to use them in that setting. And so, it begins with us, as technical communicators asking ourself, "well, what objective are we trying to get this person to achieve?" Or, what objective are they trying to achieve? Asking the subject, "what are you trying to do?" Our users are our audience? We then begin to break down questions into categories to build these prototype maps. So, we start off with the "where," it's all about location.

[00:32:11.480] - Kirk St.Amant 

As noted earlier, if I know the space you're in, I know the five parts of that overall cognitive model I need to account for, to build designs that fit into your expectation of space. So, where are you when you do x? Where are you when you try to make a phone call? Now, once you've told me where you are, I need to create a visual map, a prototype of what that thing should look like. What does that space look like?

[00:32:33.530] - Kirk St.Amant 

I'm in my office, describe what that office looks like. What is in it? Specifically, as you're describing things, I want you to tell me, what do you look for when you're trying to perform this process in this space? You're in your office, you've said your office had these things. What specifically are you looking for when you're trying to make a phone call in your office?

[00:32:56.130] - Kirk St.Amant 

The next part is, to try to figure out the specific design of objects in a space, we're back to these prototypes. What are the minimum characteristics something should have for us to recognize it? So, you've said that you use this object to perform this process in the setting, can you describe that object to me? So I know what it looks like, its minimum features I've got to include, so you can recognize it, categorize it, and operationalize it, quickly and effectively.

[00:33:22.800] - Kirk St.Amant 

And then, once I know how you identify space, how you identify objects in that space, I need to map out the process you have for using those objects to figure out how it all goes together to create this overall mental model, this script for how you reflexively behave in a space. And in that case, it's a matter of, talk me through the overall task. What do you do? And then describe to me the things you use. Again, we're back to building prototypes or visual models that tell us how you identify what a phone is, what a computer is, what a pen is, in the setting of office.

[00:33:57.870] - Kirk St.Amant 

But this is how these five C's come together in order to understand these cognitive processes that limit, attempt to address the limitations of our short term memories.

[00:34:10.580] - Kirk St.Amant 

To gather this data, some of the best methods to use are interviews or focus groups, interacting specifically with a number of users for whom we are trying to design and asking them these four kinds of questions, "objective, space, design, process." But the idea is, we're trying to build, recreate the visual model they have, for identifying the spaces they're in, for using things, and the designs of things they intend to use. So, we can trigger these reflexive responses that tell them how to use things, without having to provide overt instruction.

[00:34:45.290] - Kirk St.Amant 

Essentially,we need to know more than just, who the user is. We need to know the spaces they're in, and how they identify those spaces, what features must be there for them to identify a space, to know how to trigger a reflexive cognitive response for how they perform actions, and then to know what the objects we want them to use. What should those objects look like so they can recognize them and use them readily in that space, based upon the scripts and prototypes, they have? To negotiate sensory input and process it in ways that make things recognizable, categorizable, and operational and useable. 

[00:35:24.650] - Kirk St.Amant 

 So, basically, we're trying to account for, or map this encounter process.

[00:35:29.510] - Kirk St.Amant 

How do we recognize things? How do we categorize them based on recognition and how do we operationalize them, once we know what they are and know what they do? If we can figure out these factors, these are the things we have, to understand the universe and to understand usability, because we know why you're in a space. You're here to check in for a hotel room, you know what you're going to do in that space. You're going to approach a front desk, ask to confirm a reservation, sign a form, pay with a credit card.

[00:35:56.090] - Kirk St.Amant 

You know what you're going to use to do all of these things, and how do you know? Because repeated experience over time has built mental models that you default to, that tell you what things should look like, and tell you how to behave in that space. It works for usability in space,  it works for usability of objects, and perhaps with a bit more extension over time, we can figure out how to use it with metaphysics. But in a nutshell, these are kind of, how the brain affects expectations of design and use and usability.

[00:36:24.410] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you all for your patience with the chance to speak with you about these things. At this time, I'm welcome to take questions.

[00:36:31.070] - Liz Fraley 

Oh, that was fantastic. I will quote one of the attendees, "this was truly excellent. Best T.C. Dojo ever," and I can't help but agree. Thank you so much for doing this. 

[00:36:42.060] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you for the opportunity. 

[00:36:43.770] - Liz Fraley 

All right, I'm going to take control back briefly while you guys type in your questions. This is the chance to do that. All right, here's what's coming up. In a week, looks like about a week now, is our next week TPC Affinity Group. This is a monthly-driven member discussion group, where attendees present their specific challenges, all the topics on their mind in a confidential, supportive environment. These groups,  we have two of them going on right now.

[00:37:17.030] - Liz Fraley 

One is "Everything TechComm," DITA, "Topic Based Authoring," two specific sort of, cross references or graphics, and the other is, Product Focus for our textile windshield.

[00:37:26.600] - Liz Fraley 

It's a collaborative peer-to-peer environment, where everyone lends their expertise to each other. It's been really amazing to participate in, and a lot of fun too. These sessions are not free, as a way to guarantee dedication and commitment to all the parties involved. You can sign up at the T.C. Dojo website. Next month, we have Pushpinder Toor coming from PTC. Pushpinder is going to demonstrate keys and key rafts, and the best practices for using them. If you've been coming to the T.C. Dojo for a long time, you know that one of our passions is DITA maps and using them for things beyond deliverables.

[00:38:01.430] - Liz Fraley 

Pushpinder is going to show you one way maps are the key to keys. It's going to be a great session and be sure to sign up. How do you do that? Well, you go to tcdojo.org, it's a short link that takes you to this page, and you just scroll on down and you can see all the things that are coming up.

[00:38:18.110] - Liz Fraley 

Plus, at the bottom of the page, if you want to be a T.C. Dojo speaker, use the link at the bottom to submit a proposal. All right, let's take a look at what we have. In the question window, here is the first one, "this is truly excellent, as always, my question is, are there any good books?" Do you have a list of books and recommendations?

[00:38:41.740] - Kirk St.Amant 

Oh, boy, great questions. I'm going to ask you a favor, if I may, I've provided my email as part of the slides I produced. If you want to email that question to me, I can come up with a list of citations to send you, the name and the title of the book. Right off the top of my head, there are specific areas you might want to look at. Cognitive Linguistics is where the concept of prototypes come from.

[00:39:05.270] - Kirk St.Amant 

The person whose work you might want to look for in that case, is named Eleanor Rausch, R-A-U-S-C-H I believe, forgive me if I get it wrong. Another person to look at is, Jean Aitchison. I believe that's A-I-T-C-H-I-S-O-N, again, I can correct that later. The script theory stuff, a lot of that comes from a cognitive scientist, named Silvan Tomkins, I believe that's T-O-M-K-I-N-S, and then, two other computer scientists, Schank and Abelson. 

[00:39:33.800] - Kirk St.Amant 

And forgive me for not remembering their first names, but again, if you want to email me, I can give you both the lists of the names, and the specific works that look at these topics. So, you can look at them more, but they come out of cognitive science, cognitive linguistics, and social psychology, for the most part. Great question. 

[00:39:51.630] - Liz Fraley 

All right, and I'll email you also and post that to the page where I put the videos, so everybody, the links will be there, ready for you to access.

[00:39:59.420] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you. 

[00:40:00.720] - Liz Fraley 

All right, what else? We have, "best T.C. Dojo ever," I knew that was going to be the case, you're so much fun to watch. 

[00:40:06.780] - Kirk St.Amant 


[00:40:07.160] - Liz Fraley 

 All right, here's one, "how do the five C's work in cross-cultural contexts?"

[00:40:12.800] - Kirk St.Amant 

Awesome question. 

[00:40:13.970] - Liz Fraley 

Excellent question. 

[00:40:15.140] - Kirk St.Amant 

The five C's really, they're built to help design these cross-cultural context situations, because the context in which something takes place varies from culture to culture. And so, it's all about breaking the stereotypical expectation that, "this space looks the same everywhere" an office is an office is an office, not so. So, this is where we begin, by trying to figure out the space we begin working in, what does it look like? And then making sure you identify the culture you're designing for,

[00:40:40.610] - Kirk St.Amant 

so you get the space right, and the expectations of the design of space correct, and the expectations of what should be in that space. It's all driven by exposure based upon the culture you're a part of. And that's just not sort of, different kinds of global cultures, but it's also professional cultures or regional cultures. An office in the Midwest might look differently from an office in the Pacific Northwest, might look different from an office in the Southeast. Or different kinds of spaces where things are done, might look differently.

[00:41:08.210] - Kirk St.Amant 

But the idea is, realizing there's no universal default space for anything, and there's no universal default design based on space. You've got to ask these questions to figure out what your user expects a space to look like, and what they expect to be in that space to perform a function, and what they expect those things that they use, to look like. You've got to get down to that nitty gritty level and that helps you get to those cultural dynamics. Great question.

[00:41:33.320] - Liz Fraley 

 That is a great question. Here's another one, "how do you suggest that one obtain information about user expectations and spaces if you do not necessarily obtain direct access to your users?"

[00:41:45.050] - Kirk St.Amant 

Awesome question. This is kind of, this is great, because in many cases you can use this five part model to flip things back onto the client who's contacted you to design something. To use my hotel model, so, Hyatt wants me to build an interface for their check-in system. Then, my very first question to them is, "ok, your hotel lobby, I want to know what your standard hotel lobby looks like. Tell me what that space you've configured for your client base, your customer base looks like.

[00:42:12.560] - Kirk St.Amant 

Tell me what things are in that space." And this could be a case where you also want to ask the people who work in that space, the managers of specific sites, what kinds of things do people request? What kinds of materials do you provide them with? What do they look like? But the idea is, because these spaces are interactive and they're constructed by third parties, there are multiple individuals who have seen and create these spaces. And so, there are multiple sources you can go to, to find them out.

[00:42:40.190] - Kirk St.Amant 

The key is to use, you can't just go with sort of, one opinion on something, but it's to test multiple versions of the same thing or ask the same questions to the same audience to zone in on what a space should look like, what should be there. Ideally, if you can ask different populations interacting in that space, a person checking into a hotel, a person working at a hotel desk, the person who designs the space, you can get a rough idea of how those together create usability expectations.

[00:43:07.340] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, there are different ways around it. None of them is perfect, but all of them is essential, and I think the key factor is, we can't assume that someone's expectations of what space looks like and things look like in a space, are defaults. We need to actually ask people to get to that. So, I hope that answers your question. If not, I'm happy to follow up and chat more about it later. 

[00:43:27.850] - Liz Fraley 

I love that you use the registration desk as your validation example, because we've all done that. And I got to tell you a story, I had one where it was in North Carolina. We went in, and the downstairs floor is just a ballroom, so you had to go upstairs to the registration. But the second floor is a museum,

[00:43:49.150] - Kirk St.Amant 

Oh, wow. 

[00:43:50.200] - Liz Fraley 

So, you walk around and look around, there's no desk.

[00:43:54.190] - Liz Fraley 

And we ended up having to go back out to the security officers to say, "hey, what do we do?"

[00:43:58.660] - Kirk St.Amant 

 There, exactly.

[00:43:59.800] - Liz Fraley 

And it turned out they used one of the display cases as their registration, they bring the tablet out and check you in. It was very weird.

[00:44:06.730] - Kirk St.Amant 

Wow. Well, to sort of, spin it back, think about how many of us have checked in at an airport recently where they've used the auto check-in kiosks. 

[00:44:14.680] - Liz Fraley 


[00:44:14.950] - Kirk St.Amant 

 And how this technology that theoretically is supposed to make things much more streamlined, in some cases, is causing backlogs because different people have different models they expect, of how to check-in in that space. And they need somebody there to explain the model to them, not just once, but two or three or four times.

[00:44:29.890] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, it's the same thing like you mentioned, you alter the space and what's in it, you completely throw people off because they've got no defaults on how to use things based on mental experience. 

[00:44:39.250] - Liz Fraley 


[00:44:40.330] - Liz Fraley 

Great, great foundation example. Here's one, "is the short term memory benchmark still 7 plus or minus 2?" I read somewhere it was 5 plus or minus 2.

[00:44:50.380] - Kirk St.Amant 

Great question. The benchmark is often defined by this concept of units. So, how much information you squish together into one unit for processing? And so, the fuzzy line tends to be in how we're defining what a unit is. In essence, there's a finite number of units and so, five is a nice, comfortable one because it's easy to manage and it falls inside that 7 plus or minus 2 parameter, righ? So, if you're trying to figure out, "I'm not sure what the safe default is," five is quite safe.

[00:45:17.830] - Kirk St.Amant 

And as corny as this sounds, the example I've heard explained to me by individuals in the field is, five is safe because you can count it off on your fingers to help remember things. So, think about most of us, as we're trying to remember, we literally do count stuff on our fingers. Five helps us remember because we've got the mental, the tactical, the verbal, the internal/visual. All of that together helps. But the key is, it's finite and it's incredibly finite compared to how much information we throw at people.

[00:45:44.560] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, we need to bundle it in ways that help people understand it. Great question.

[00:45:48.730] - Liz Fraley 

That is a great answer. All right, one last question, "which happened first? The form of prototypes, or the scripts?"

[00:45:56.320] - Kirk St.Amant 

 Awesome. Prototypes are the beginning point,

[00:46:00.280] - Kirk St.Amant 

We all have prototypes for a space, that tells us where we are. We've got to have that prototype to trigger the script that tells us how to behave.

[00:46:09.070] - Kirk St.Amant 

So, one leads to the other. And that's why, I mean, we can reflexively order at restaurants, for example, we walk in and we know exactly what to do and how to move through the process. Until we come to the restaurant we've never seen the entranceway for before. There's no sign that says, "please wait to be seated" or "please seat yourself" and we just shut down because we've got no mental script that tells us how to behave. We don't have a prototype that helps us  identify the space.

[00:46:34.570] - Kirk St.Amant 

If we can't recognize, we can't categorize, we don't know what to do and we can't operationalize, we can't behave in that space. So, prototypes tend to come before scripts. In fact, there's something called "prototype of place" which is the mental model we have, to use to identify the space we're in, to trigger scripts for behavior. And so, that's kind of the penultimate thing we're looking at right now. What is the "prototype of place" our users have for where they perform a function? Because that carries with it everything else we've talked about.

[00:47:05.800] - Liz Fraley 

Excellent. And there's one last one before we go, thank you. Great explanation and wonderful presentation. Thank you. 

[00:47:12.240] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you.

[00:47:12.850] - Kirk St.Amant 

Thank you all again for this opportunity, and thank you Liz, for this chance. I appreciate it.

[00:47:16.630] - Liz Fraley 

Thanks so much for doing it. All right, folks, we'll see you again next month.

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Key Concepts:

basics, usability and user experience

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