Could the way we organize content actually be causing readers to forget what they have read, or even why they were reading?
In a post on the Technical Communication Professionals Email List, Mike Tulloch provides a link to a study from Notre Dame that suggest that walking through doors causes people to forget things (http://newsinfo.nd.edu/news/27476-walking-through-doorways-causes-forgetting-new-research-shows/). The theory is, apparently, that passing through a doorway is a threshold event that triggers the mind to store away information, which then makes it harder to retrieve that information. Mike wonders if there may be similar threshold events in text:
Does whitespace between paragraphs serve as a textual doorway, which causes readers to forget what transpired in the previous paragraph? … Does turning the page causes memory loss? The very concept of “turning the page” implies a forgetting what is behind, so perhaps there is something to all of this.
It is certainly an interesting question. And there are a number of other threshold events that would be worth studying as well. Does going from the text to the index constitute a threshold event? What about going from the index to a page pointed to by an index entry? What about following a reference to a table or an illustration? What about going to the table of contents?
For online content, there are similar questions. Does following a link create a threshold event? Does clicking an up or back button on a topic to get to a table of content page create a threshold event? What about clicking a “next page” link in artificially paginated web content? If there is such an effect, could we or should we change how we design books and websites to lessen the number of threshold events and help readers retain more of what they read?
We won’t know until someone does the necessary studies, so what follows is pure blue-sky speculation, but these are my immediate thoughts:
It seems to me logical to assume that part of what makes passing through a doorway a threshold event is that on the other side of a doorway there is a brand new room full of new sights and sounds to take in. That flood of new information displaces the information that was previously uppermost in the brain. Passing through a door means walking into a new situation full of distractions. What conclusions might we draw from this entirely unsupported hypothesis?
- It is better to give the reader everything they need to complete one task on one page. In other words, it is better to write Every Page is Page One Topics than to present information in more granular chunks that require the reader to cross multiple thresholds.
- Sending people to a TOC or an index is sending them to a room full of new possibilities and new distractions that could cause them to forget what they were doing and what they were trying to look up. If you have to send them away from the current page, therefore, it would be better to send them directly to the external information via a link than to send them into a TOC or index.
- If a reader gets stuck on something on your page, they may Google for more information. (I know I do Highlight > Right Click > Search Google for… all the time when I am reading on the Web.) If whitespace or page turning or checking an index is a threshold event, then doing a Google search is ever so much more so a threshold event. Providing a link within the text that sent the user directly to another page on our own site could avoid this large distraction (besides keeping the reader on our own site).
Of course, if turning a page is a threshold event, then following a link is too. But at least a link would seem to involve exposing the reader to fewer distractions than sending them to an index, TOC, or Google. If there is anything to all this, then putting all the information for one task in a single topic will clearly be the best strategy. But if that is not possible, then it seems reasonable to believe that providing direct links will be better than sending people off to TOCs, indexes, and search.
Of course, there may be nothing to this at all. We would need the studies to be sure. Perhaps someone will do the research. Perhaps someone already has. I’d do a Google search for it, but I’m afraid that before I was finished I would have forgotten I was writing this blog post.
Anyone know of any research that would refute or support these speculations? Anybody got their own blue-sky theories to share?