Supporting our Brains

One of the ways I’ve been thinking about the role mobile can play in design is thinking about how our brains work, and don’t.  It came out of both mobile and the recent cognitive science for learning workshop I gave at the recent DevLearn.  This applies more broadly to performance support in general, so I though I’d share where my thinking is going.

To begin with, our cognitive architecture is demonstrably awesome; just look at your surroundings and recognize your clothing, housing, technology, and more are the product of human ingenuity.  We have formidable capabilities to predict, plan, and work together to accomplish significant goals.  On the flip side, there’s no one all-singing, all-dancing architecture out there (yet) and every such approach also has weak points. Technology, for instance, is bad at pattern-matching and meaning-making, two things we’re really pretty good at.  On the flip side, we have some flaws too. So what I’ve done here is to outline the flaws, and how we’ve created tools to get around those limitations.  And to me, these are principles for design:

table of cognitive limitations and support toolsSo, for instance, our senses capture incoming signals in a sensory store.  Which has interesting properties that it has almost an unlimited capacity, but for only a very short time. And there is no way all of it can get into our working memory, so what happens is that what we attend to is what we have access to.  So we can’t recall what we perceive accurately.  However, technology (camera, microphone, sensors) can recall it all perfectly. So making capture capabilities available is a powerful support.

Similar, our attention is limited, and so if we’re focused in one place, we may forget or miss something else.  However, we can program reminders or notifications that help us recall important events that we don’t want to miss, or draw our attention where needed.

The limits on working memory (you may have heard of the famous 7±2, which really is <5) mean we can’t hold too much in our brains at once, such as interim results of complex calculations.  However, we can have calculators that can do such processing for us. We also have limited ability to carry information around for the same reasons, but we can create external representations (such as notes or scribbles) that can hold those thoughts for us.  Spreadsheets, outlines, and diagramming tools allow us to take our interim thoughts and record them for further processing.

We also have trouble remembering things accurately. Our long term memory tends to remember meaning, not particular details. However, technology can remember arbitrary and abstract information completely. What we need are ways to look up that information, or search for it. Portals and lookup tables trump trying to put that information into our heads.

We also have a tendency to skip steps. We have some randomness in our architecture (a benefit: if we sometimes do it differently, and occasionally that’s better, we have a learning opportunity), but this means that we don’t execute perfectly.  However, we can use process supports like checklists.  Atul Gawande wrote a fabulous book on the topic that I can recommend.

Other phenomena include that previous experience can bias us in particular directions, but we can put in place supports to provide lateral prompts. We can also prematurely evaluate a solution rather than checking to verify it’s the best. Data can be used to help us be aware.  And we can trust our intuition too much and we can wear down, so we don’t always make the best decisions.  Templates, for example are a tool that can help us focus on the important elements.

This is just the result of several iterations, and I think more is needed (e.g. about data to prevent premature convergence), but to me it’s an interesting alternate approach to consider where and how we might support people, particularly in situations that are new and as yet untested.  So what do you think?

Everyday Workplace Learning: A quick primer

Everyday learning is the learning that takes place everyday as individuals do their jobs – individually or working with their internal colleagues, as well as connecting with others in (online) professional networks and channels. It’s about continuously acquiring small pieces of information or skills (often unconsciously) that over time build up into a large body […]



The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. Alfred North Whitehead.

Before you try to change something, increase your awareness of it. Tim Galwey

For the first twenty-five years of my life, I wanted freedom. For the next twenty-five, I wanted order. For the next twenty-five years, I realized that order is freedom. Winston Churchill.

The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye… The hand is the cutting edge of the mind. Jacob Bronowski (ACT)

The world isn’t interested in the storms you encountered, but whether or not you brought in the ship. Raul Armesto

Those who face that which is actually before them, unburdened by the past, undistracted by the future, those are they who live, who make the best use of their lives, those are those who have found the secret of contentment. Alban Goodier


“99 percent of success is built on failure.” – Charles Kettering

“The ultimate creative thinking technique is to think like God. If you’re an atheist, pretend how God would do it.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” – Linus Pauling

“One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive one.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze.” – Peter Drucker

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer injury to our self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their self-importance, learn so easily; and why older people, especially if vain or arrogant, cannot learn at all.” ~ Thomas Szasz

“One must learn by doing the thing. For though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.” ~ Sophocles 

“If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” ~ William McKnight, CEO of 3M 

Consider the frog and the scorpion. Give me a ride across the stream. But you will sting me and I will die, replies the frog. But then I would drown, argues the scorpion. The frog swims, carrying his passenger, feels an ominous sting. Why, he asks. Because it is my nature, replies the scorpion.

Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival. W. Edwards Deming

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. Will Durant

“Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune.” Jim Rohn

You learn more quickly under the guidance of experienced teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no one to lead you. W. Somerset Maugham 

“Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge. This an art very difficult to impart. We must beware of what I will call “inert ideas” that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized or tested or thrown into fresh combinations.” Alfred North Whitehead

“Learning is not so much an additive process, with new learning simply piling up on top of existing knowledge, as it is an active, dynamic process in which the connections are constantly changing and the structure reformatted.” K. Patricia Cross

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning. Claude Bernard

Sometimes the last thing learners need is for their preferred learning style to be affirmed. Agreeing to let people learn only in a way that feels comfortable and familiar can restrict seriously their chance for development. Steven Brookfield

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Alexander Pope

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.
Thomas Szasz

“Students learn what they care about . . .,” Stanford Ericksen has said, but Goethe knew something else: “In all things we learn only from those we love.” Add to that Emerson’s declaration: “the secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.” and we have a formula something like this: “Students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know, care about them…” Barbara Harrell Carson

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one. Malcolm S. Forbes

The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; To train it to the use of its own powers rather than to fill it with the accumulation of others. Tryon Edwards

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey

“We learn something every day, and lots of times it’s that what we learned the day before was wrong.” Bill Vaughn

“Knowledge is not a commodity to be traded between expert and novice. Rather, it is a construction of ideas negotiated by the learner in a social setting.” Rosamar Garcia

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” Samuel Johnson  (Performance support 101)

“There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.” Denis Diderot

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” Albert Einstein

“He who asks a question may be a fool for five minutes. But he who never asks a question remains a fool forever.” Tom J. Connelly

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.” Alvin Toffler

What we must decide is perhaps how we are valuable, rather than how valuable we are. F. Scott Fitzgerald

Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago. Bernard Berenson

Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.  Oliver Wendell Holmesquotes2