Helping science succeed
Helping science succeed

I work in a field called content design. It’s a mix of information architecture, copywriting, editing, data analysis, systems design and a funny, special little discipline we call usability.

In one especially deep, theoretical dive into usability that started with “How would you design something an alien could use?,” passed through “What does it mean to use something, anyway?” then hit bump in the road called “mirror neurons” and became quagmired in the sticky philosophical pit called “empathy,” I ran into a chapter called “Empathy for Objects” in a philosophy textbook. I had the chapter open on my laptop and ready to read for months, but every time I started reading it I could only finish a paragraph or two before getting distracted. Finally, refusing to admit defeat, I printed the chapter out, stuffed it into my bag, and last weekend on a flight to Albuquerque — when I was forced to choose between reading it or SkyMall — I dug it out from under the seat in front of me.

This is a topic I’m interested in. Really interested in. I was eager to read this chapter and had blamed myself and my ad-length Gen Y attention span for my inability to get past paragraph two. As I flipped through the pages, though, it dawned on me that it was not, in fact, my own hey-look-a-squirrel mind that was at fault. The chapter was, well, boring.

It wasn’t the subject matter. It wasn’t even the research or the facts presented that were dull. It was the words themselves — those myriad two-dimensional tools that covered each page like a gooey layer of cheese on a plate of nachos. They were dull and dense and didn’t coalesce into a large functional system the way they could have.

When you think of units of information as the parts of a tool, the way we try to in the field of usability, you start to think about language very differently. It doesn’t just have to be remembered, like copywriting, it has to be used. The right information presented in the right way can make people laugh, cry, sign a petition or pay large sums of money.

I wouldn’t say I’ve become good at designing these information tools, because I think incredibly few people outside of the characters in “Inception” are, but I’ve definitely become good at spotting things that aren’t working and teasing out why. Not to get political, but a few months ago I was watching a certain candidate give a speech and was amazed at the complete lack of information in literally everything he said. The crowd, incredibly, went wild.

When I finally read “Empathy for Objects” 30,000 feet above the Great American Desert and realized why my eyelids were getting heavy, I thought at first that it was a shame. Then as the boredom increased and the peanuts ran out I began to think of it as a challenge. Then the plane landed and I forgot about it. (There’s that squirrel brain. I knew it would show up.)

Now I’ve remembered, so let’s take a sample paragraph and see what we can do with it.


Empathic understanding of emotion in other agents is also driven by a comparable sort of simulation. While disgust evolved, presumably, as an encouragement to us to avoid the noxious, its mechanisms are implicated in the recognition of disgust in others; sight of someone with a disgusted facial expression activates brain areas used in the generation of our own feelings of disgust (Wicker et. al. (2003). And people who have damage to one of these areas–the insula–and which prevents them from feeling disgust, are impaired in their recognition of disgust in others (Adolphs et. al. 2003; Calder et. al. 2003). It seems that we detect the emotions of others by having them trigger comparable responses in us. This triggering in us need not count as our having the emotion itself–we need not be made angry by the sight of someone who is experiencing anger. But there is, in us, a simulation of the emotion, and this contributes to our recognizing the emotion which they feel.14 Some simulative processes are recruited to both personal empathy and empathy for objects. The secondary somatosensory cortex, once thought only to respond to physical touch, is strongly activated by the sight of other people being touched. Seeing objects collide generates the same activity (Keysers et. al. 2004).15


Empathic understanding of emotion is also driven by simulation. Disgust helps us avoid dangerous substances, but the neurons that generate it also help us recognize when someone else feels disgusted. The sight of a disgusted facial expression activates the same brain areas used when the observer herself feels disgusted. (Wicker et. al. (2003). In fact, observers with brain damage that prevents them from feeling disgust are less able to recognize disgust in others (Adolphs et. al. 2003; Calder et. al. 2003). We don’t have to be angry to recognize that someone else is angry, our brains just have to simulate the emotion.14

These simulations can lead us to feel empathy for objects as well as people. The secondary somatosensory cortex, once thought only to respond to physical touch, is strongly activated by the sight of other people being touched. Seeing objects collide generates the same activity (Keysers et. al. 2004).15

By breaking the information up into more usable chunks and deleting everything unnecessary or redundant (we call those things “clutter” in design) we were able to make the passage easier to parse without dumbing it down or losing information.

Just as I blamed myself for not reading the paper at first, poor usability of all kinds makes the people who have to work with it blame themselves. When you find yourself fumbling with something that seems like it should be straightforward, it’s probably not your brain that’s to blame. It’s the fact that the people who designed it weren’t considering human brains at all. Writers can be as guilty of it as web designers or product designers, and the errors it causes can be just as dangerous and much easier to get away with using unscrupulously. Think about the political speech I mentioned earlier. The hollow rhetoric still caught audience attention because the speaker was using combinations of words that sounded good and fit in with the ecosystem of memes that the audience was already immersed in. Each phrase that seemed to confirm something they already believed got a loud cheer. It was utterly mechanical, like a thousand Roombas rolling toward a clump of cat hair. A choreography of cockroaches.

…unlike those of us in science and content design who get excited by things we don’t understand, most people just get demoralized.

It would be easy to say that a speech with actual information would have been more moral — in fact it would be easy to feel like the more information something contained, the better it was for you, me, humanity and all the little orphaned children. It might make you feel good inside to know that most of your communications as an academic have been virtually vacuum-packed with real, wholesome information. But if you don’t think of your information as something that has to be used, and design it with usability in mind, you run the risk of making people fall asleep trying to absorb all the hard work you’ve done. And if your work has serious implications for the environment, an endangered species, lab safety, or pancreatic health, then your density of information may be as dangerous and, yes, immoral, as the cardboard-cutout political speech.

Here’s the real kicker: An entire field of study that exists entirely within a few thousand hyper-dense pages and Powerpoint presentations is not only going to be completely ignored by anyone who isn’t really interested, it’s also going make anyone who is interested feel stupid. And unlike those of us in science and content design who get excited by things we don’t understand, most people just get demoralized. Information overload has turned many a grandparent, who may know eight recipes for chicken soup by heart, or how to assemble a rifle in 15 seconds, into a frustrated ball of denial when confronted with a programmable VCR. When you make someone feel inadequate, you kill their confidence, and when you kill their confidence, you kill their desire to learn.

I’ll wrap this up with a few things to think about next time you give a presentation or write a paper, especially if it’s for, or paid for by, the general public:

  1. Give them an in. Start off with something that’s familiar to everyone, and build on that concept until you get to the new thing you want them to know about. This creates a pathway of information that they won’t get lost on, and, ideally, will be able to walk others down later.
  2. Use short sentences. No matter how knowledgeable your peers might be on the subject, a shorter sentence is still easier to digest than a longer sentence. When reading is easier, the cognitive load is reduced, and more energy is left for processing your actual ideas.
  3. Always explain jargon the first time it’s used. Those who know it will skip over the explanation without even thinking, and those who don’t will be much more likely to keep reading. After the first use, no repeated explaining is needed, since the reader will at least remember where to go back and look if they forget.
  4. Don’t be scared of metaphors. I’ve been called “soft” by bottom-line-obsessed MBAs for even mentioning storytelling, but the truth is that the tools of a good storyteller are tools, like any other, and they can be incredibly useful for helping people understand things. So what if your data isn’t actually lemon meringue pies? The human brain understands the flavor of lemon, the texture of meringue, and smell of warm pie crust fresh out of the oven much better than it understands abstract concepts like numbers and statistics. By using this metaphor, you connect your information to a sea of memories and physical and emotional information that already exists in the mind of the user — and these aren’t “soft” wishy-washy connections — these are happening physically in individual neurons. The more connections, the better the information will stick, and the easier it’ll be to recall later.
  5. Don’t present more than about 5 new things at once. More than that, and you begin to jab the soft, delicate edges of human short term memory with a pointy stick. Good usability involves as little jabbing as possible. Plus, this way you get to save a few things for your next paper.

Remember: Information has to be used, so make it usable.

Thea Boodhoo

Thea Boodhoo is a content designer at a world-renowned advertising agency in San Francisco, where she does vaguely science-like things for huge corporations. In her free time she prefers to do advertising-like things for science. She goes by @tharkibo on twitter, where she shares thoughts and links about both.