Every day, we make decisions on what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Our experiences inform our decision-making, whether it be by the information we’ve gained from past experiences or from new information we receive when interacting with services.
When making decisions, we expect to receive relevant information that is reliable, shareable, discoverable, understandable, memorable and even questionable, to help us make informed decisions. When information sharing is not relevant, we end up misinformed. Designing an informed decision-making process means considering the user’s needs, their context, behaviours and goals to define what should be available and how it will be accessed.
What should be available?
Before making information available, we need to understand how and where it will be used (shareable) and if it will mislead users (reliable).
Reliability relates to the level of accuracy required for any specific scenario or context. What’s reliable in one case, might be unreliable in another. For example, when cooking we don’t measure in microseconds, but this is a crucial measurement in defining the performance of a Formula 1 car. Pasta packaging might say to cook for 10 minutes, even if what’s perfectly needed is 10 minutes 3 seconds and 42 microseconds. But for the context, that level of accuracy isn’t needed. So even if the packaging communicates technically ‘inaccurate’ information, it’s still reliable information due to the context.
Aggregated data can also be unreliable, leading machine learning to make biased decisions, such as when a computer algorithm shows racial bias for potential future criminal offense.
Being able to assess reliability is essential to start defining whether and how information should be shareable.
The United Nations COVID-19 campaign prompts readers to check certain elements of news before sharing: Who made it? What is the source of information? Where did it come from? Why are you sharing this? When was it published?
Defining what information should be available starts with questioning whether information should be shared. Followed by what should be shared, how much and with whom.
Regulations like GDPR protect citizen’s privacy by guiding organisations on how to store and share data. However, GDPR can often lead to assumptions that nothing can be shared instead of leading mindful conversations on how to use data to support people whilst protecting their privacy.
In Buckinghamshire County Council, we shared information on available adult services and made it easier to discover with a digital front door.
How will it be accessed?
Information should be accessible without constraints that are physical and digital (discoverability), sensory and cognitive (understandability) and temporal (memorability).
Discoverability is about what makes users aware of information, usually by placing information where it can be found or encountered. People can intentionally find this blog post by browsing FutureGov’s Medium publication, or they can unintentionally encounter it on social media.
The design of a sign can also help make information discoverable. This STOP sign for example is both discoverable and easily understood thanks to its consistent placement, shape and colour in most countries. Meaning even if you encounter the sign covered in snow, we can interpret the information.
Understandability is the concept that information should be presented in a way that is easy to comprehend, reducing cognitive overload. Information should be complete, concise, clear and organised to help the reader focus on what information is being shared, rather than distracted by how it is being presented.
You may remember the story of poor understandability on a confusing PowerPoint slide at NASA which created misunderstanding and a misinformed decision on how to bring back the Space Shuttle Columbia crew.
Memorability supports people to recollect information, even when they cannot access it directly. Like in an emergency, when an acronym makes it easier to remember fire safety protocol.
Mnemonic devices are an example of a tool that can help recollection. They’re the reason why we sing Happy Birthday while washing our hands, instead of trying to count the seconds. Or when a fire safety card shows the four essential steps to take if you discover a fire using the acronym “RACE”: Rescue anyone in immediate danger of the fire. Alarm and call for fire response. Contain fire by closing all doors. Extinguish small fires, if not, leave the area.
The ethics of information sharing: questionability
Designing good information sharing experiences helps inform people to make decisions. Mastering how it’s done can even enable us to go a step further, influencing the decisions people will make.
This prompts an ethical conversation around how people should be empowered to question how the information is relevant and how it’s influencing them.
Sharing additional meta-information allows people to consciously challenge whether they should be considered the information during their decision-making. For example, when searching online, we should be able to check what was typed and what filters are applied to ensure whether the information discovered is relevant or if filters need to be adjusted.
However, there are many platforms where this is not available. Our Facebook feeds for example have the ability to influence our decisions when everyone in our network can openly share found information. But it’s hard to verify everything that’s shared. Unlike most search platforms, we cannot access the filters used in the algorithm to question what’s included, excluded and why.
“In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. In ancient times, having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow
The more digital experiences inform decision-making, the more designers need to be mindful of how users will question information and think even more about how information is relevant, reliable, available, discoverable, understandable, memorable and questionable to truly create experiences that inform decisions.